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By Kyle Daly
Sept. 30 — The Federal Communications Commission Sept. 30 released a tentative plan for how it intends to move TV broadcasters onto different airwaves after they relinquish spectrum licenses in the ongoing spectrum incentive auction.
Participating broadcasters—possibly including major players such as CBS Corp., Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and Gannett Co. Inc.—would be moved off their current frequencies in a maximum of 10 phases under the tentative plan, in a process known as repacking (2016 TLN 10, 4/5/16).
The process is an essential ingredient in the FCC's ambitious effort to free up a swath of fresh airwaves for exploding wireless data demands.
“Getting the transition right is as important as getting the auction right,” FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake told reporters on a Sept. 30 press call.
The FCC, under its tentative plan, would determine which stations to put in each phase under a formula designed to minimize disruption. Any given market would see its stations limited to two phases at most, and stations considered “linked,” in that moving one could disrupt pre-transition operations of another, would be put in the same phase and have to switch signals simultaneously.
The exact grouping of stations won’t be known until the auction closes and the FCC determines which stations will actually have to change frequencies.
The phased approach should have the effect of keeping signal interference to a minimum as broadcasters test their equipment in anticipation of the transition, Lake said. Broadcasters can expect to have to retune or even replace their antennas and potentially build new structural support for their equipment in order to get up and running on a new spectrum band, said Jean Kiddoo, deputy chief of the Wireless Bureau.
The whole process is scheduled to take place over 39 months following the close of the auction. Stations expected to face a particularly challenging or time-consuming repack process — for instance, those broadcasting from a tower shared by several other broadcasters whose frequency moves all face different technical hurdles — will be put in the later phases to give them more time to prepare.
The actual repack could end up changing from the tentative plan once broadcasters and others have a chance to weigh in. In a public notice detailing its vision for the repack, the FCC encouraged broadcasters to weigh in if they would like to see provisions removed or changed. For example, in the interest of minimizing consumer confusion and disruption, the agency said it intends not to use temporary channels where stations could move before settling in to their permanent channel assignments, but the agency also said it would consider using temporary channels if broadcasters want them and went on to detail how it would handle issues like signal interference and pay-TV carriage of broadcast stations if the FCC temporarily assigns channels.
Initial comments on the plan are due Oct. 31, with a subsequent period for reply comments ending Nov. 15. The comment period will include an Oct. 13 webinar that will allow stakeholders to talk directly with FCC staff about any concerns or input they may have as the FCC works to mount a successful repack.
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