Barton Gives Love to LPTVs, But Not Much More

WASHINGTON—Texas Republican Joe Barton went to bat for low-power TV broadcasters in a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday to give them a little more purchase in the upcoming spectrum incentive auction. Not a lot, but some.

“It does give LPTV license holder increased moral standing if nothing else,” Barton said.

LPTV and translator licensees cannot participate in the TV spectrum incentive auction, to be held in less than a year. The most recent count by the Federal Communications Commission puts the LPTV licenses at 2,028 as of June 30, 2014. UHF and VHF translators total 3,838. Each holds a license that may or may not be eliminated by the channel repack planned after the auction because they have no guarantee of a channel re-assignment.

Barton said his bill doesn’t intend to change the LPTV/translator license status.

“Under current law, they have no guarantee from the FCC,” he said. “They have a secondary license. They will still have a secondary license under this bill, but it directs the FCC to work with LPTV license holders.”

The three-page draft bill would amend the 2012 Spectrum Act by directing the FCC to consider the impact of the repack on LPTVs, to preserve them where possible, and to allow them to reduce power and co-locate after the auction if they so wish. It specifically excludes changing the legal status of licensees.

“Nothing in this sub-section shall be construed to alter the spectrum usage rights of low-power television stations, television translator stations, or television booster stations,” the draft states.

The protective language is broad, Barton noted:

“The commission shall… consider the benefits of low-power television stations, television translator stations and television booster stations... [and] where possible, avoid the termination” of LPTVs, translators and boosters as long as doing so doesn’t “adversely impact” the auction.

The one thing the bill would provide is an option for LPTVs squeezed out of the spectrum by the auction. It would allow licensees to “request to operate at a reduced power or from a different transmitter location consistent with the commission’s rules, if such a station would otherwise lose its license as a result of such reassignments or relocations.”

Louis Libin, executive director of the Advanced Television Broadcasting Alliance and former director of engineering at NBC, testified on behalf of LPTVs. He said they addressed the needs of under-served minority populations and people in rural areas where full-power stations are not commercially viable. Many serve people who have no other access to television, he said.

“Because the FCC does not have to share auction proceeds with LPTVs, their licenses are viewed as free spectrum,” he testified.

Libin was joined on the witness panel by Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, the public interest lobby supported by the Consumer Electronics Association, among others. PK has long been critical of broadcasters and depicted them as spectrum obstructionists.

Feldrecommend consideration against the bill, saying it would create “needless uncertainty and delay,” with regard to the spectrum auction.

“The FCC is already committed to doing what the original bill requires,” he said.

Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee and a former broadcaster, told Feld, “You have more faith the FCC than I do. I don’t want a run away FCC, that just squishes [LPTVs] because they can.

“I was hoping to have a lot more faith in this FCC… but we have Republicans that are frozen out. I want to send this message to them, to be thoughtful about the public spectrum about how its used and how it’s allocated.”

Picking up from Walden, Libin started to comment on the general sentiment among broadcasters.

There may not be a lot of unity in the community…,” he said.

“We’re aware of that,” Walden said dryly.

…but it’s coming together,” in terms of defending the spectrum allocation, Libin said.

Ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said she had concerns with translator and LPTV Act. She acknowledged the role of the licensees it targets, but said their rights are covered in previous legislation and agreed with Feld that Barton’s draft would needlessly complicate the incentive auction. She also assured Libin that Congress wasn’t trying to destroy LPTVs.

“We’re not looking to do something where there would be a loss of jobs or communications these communities of interest rely on,” she said.

Two lawmakers pressed Libin to either name an LPTV operator who would go out of business without the bill, or describe the general impact. He said he was unable to because there is no way to know until the auction how many eligible stations will participate, and therefore, how much spectrum will remain for the repack.