FCC auctioning channels 52-59 this month

The FCC has established an early buyout policy it hopes will encourage early evacuation of the spectrum auctioned this month so new owners can take possession. Also, rules regarding description of emergency information for the disabled are set down for content distributors.
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On May 28, 2003, the Commission will open the final auction of spectrum in the lower 700MHz band, now used for analog TV. The channels to be auctioned are 52-53 and 56-58. The auction will also include the spectrum that remained unsold following last September's auction of the C and D blocks of the 700MHz band, which involved frequencies currently used for channels 54, 55 and 59.

These channels are being offered for advanced wireless services, such as mobile Internet, as well as interactive TV and new video services using COFDM technology. However, because this auction is necessarily tied to the transition to digital television, the auction winners will not be able to use the frequencies until the broadcasters who now occupy them have completed the switch to digital operation on channels outside the 700MHz band. This transition will not be complete until 2006, at the earliest.

The Commission has established an early buyout policy it hopes will facilitate voluntary clearing of the lower 700MHz band. The idea is that, while the Commission may not be able to force incumbents to vacate their channels immediately, private deals between incumbents and successful bidders, i.e., those who will be taking over the spectrum, may expedite the transition. To encourage initiatives along those lines, the Commission may afford limited technical rule waivers to the new service providers. However, under the Auction Reform Act of 2002, the FCC may not waive broadcast interference standards and minimum spacing requirements if any degradation or loss of service will be caused.

The FCC's motives are not entirely altruistic. The proceeds of the auction go to the government. The FCC's would like to maximize the apparent value of the available spectrum so that the auction will generate as much income as possible. If the spectrum for sale is subject to conflicting uses or claims that will prevent the new owner from developing it right away, that would depress the bids. As a result, it is in the Commission's interest to convince bidders that the FCC will be willing to cooperate in efforts to clear the spectrum sooner rather than later.

Broadcasting for the disabled

The Commission has issued a reminder to all video programming distributors, including broadcasters, cable operators and satellite television services, that they are required to make emergency information available to people with hearing and vision disabilities. This is particularly important given the current international situation, in which emergency announcements relating to both foreign and local news are more frequent.

In the case of people who are hearing impaired, emergency information that is provided in the audio portion of the programming must be provided using closed captioning or other methods of video presentation, such as open captioning, crawls or scrolls. Emergency information that is provided in the video portion of a regularly scheduled newscast or a newscast that interrupts regular programming requires the oral description of emergency information in the main audio, such as open video description. If the emergency information is provided through “crawling” or “scrolling” during regular programming (as opposed to a regularly scheduled or interrupting newscast), the information must be accompanied by an aural tone, so that people with visual disabilities are made aware that emergency information is being broadcast and that they should tune in to a radio station or seek assistance for more information.

The rule applies to emergency information useful to protect life, health, safety or property and can include information about immediate weather situations or other emergencies, such as power failures, toxic gas discharges or industrial explosions. Critical details that must be made available include the geographic area that is or will be affected, evacuation orders, evacuation routes, approved shelters, safety information, road closures and how to obtain relief assistance. For more information, check the FCC's Web site at www.fcc.gov/cgb (scroll to “Disability.”

Harry C. Martin is an attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC, Arlington, VA.

Send questions and comments to:harry_martin@primediabusiness.com

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Stations in the following states (and Washington, DC) must file their biennial ownership reports with the FCC, and place their annual EEO reports in their public files and on their Web sites by June 1: Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

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