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McAdams On: Channel 37
10/19/2012

WAITING, 4 IT: The spectrum incentive auction notice hit the broadcast industry like a nap in church. R. Scott Flick of Pillsbury noticed the silence. Flick, a D.C.-based media and telecom attorney said it wasn’t because there were no surprises in the notice, but because it crystalized “the sheer enormity of the task ahead.”

“Ahead” being June of 2014—when the Federal Communications Commission aims to auction off voluntarily relinquished TV spectrum. Flick figured the commission would have to “resolve a paragraph’s worth of issues each and every day” that it does business after reply comments are due Feb. 19, 2013, to get rules in place by October of 2014. But Flick is like the rest of us who must adhere to the natural laws of physics. Most of us cannot make a year or more out of 180 days.

Fortunately for the FCC, it can bend time, because, as Flick notes, the incentive auction notice is a doozy. It covers—in some detail—the auction, who’s eligible; what to do with low-power TV stations, broadcast auxiliary operations, wireless microphones, white spaces, Canada, Mexico, pesky TV stations that stay on the air, extraterrestrial communications and annoying people visiting emergency rooms with heart attack symptoms. Any one of these things alone typically would be addressed in a separate ruling, possibly to flounder indefinitely, but the FCC has to pry the spectrum away from broadcasters before the public discovers that its “public” airwaves are being completely privateered by the progeny of Ma Bell.

Among the proposals in the Oct. 2 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is one to boot radio astronomers and wireless medical telemetry devices off of Channel 37. It’s hard to say if this is a feint to simulate a consistent approach, or if the wireless corsairs are really that greedy. After all, it would look kind of bad to kick everyone (broadcasters) out of Chs. 31-51 “except for you guys (not broadcasters).” Perhaps that’s even too anti-broadcasting for the current commission! (Joke.)

Whether or not the commission is trying to seem fair or the wireless cabal is at work, they may be poking a beehive on Ch. 37. So far, only five comments have been filed on the Oct. 2 NPRM’s 1,000 or so questions. Twenty percent of the five is from Nickolaus Leggett of Reston, Va. Mr. Leggett, a spectrum watchdog and ham radio operator among other things, told the FCC leave Ch. 37 alone. He noted that the NPRM said there are “relatively few radio astronomy operations, all at specified locations.”

“This is not correct,” he said. “In reality, there are just a few professional radio astronomy operations. However, there are many more amateur radio astronomy operations within the United States… These amateur scientists are not accounted for at all in the commission’s proposed regulations for radio astronomy in Ch. 37.”

The key word here is “amateur,” which in radio frequency context means guys who make radar systems out of garage door openers and kitchen appliances. They don’t all wear Shuron eyeglasses, so you can’t really tell who or how many until you mess with their spectrum. There once was a concept called “broadband over power lines,” for example, that would have endowed household electrical outlets with high-speed Internet connectivity. BPL is dead as a doornail because the amateur radio frequency contingent hammered it into oblivion. The BPL death squad comprised amateur radio operators, many of whom are also the “amateur scientists” of which Mr. Leggett writes.

The TV spectrum incentive auctions aren’t likely to be derailed by the proposal to clear Ch. 37, but in no way will it help to get the process completed by June of 2014 or perhaps within the solar cycle. The commission best enjoy the silence while it lasts.
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