Channel-Sharing: Multiple Stations on One Channel

WASHINGTON—Multiple television stations will have the legal option of sharing a 6 MHz channel after the TV spectrum incentive auction next year. This is a first in the history of U.S. broadcast television, and Federal Communications Commission officials laid out their envisioned framework for channel-sharing in a Webinar on Thursday. There will be no set limit on how many licensees can share a channel, said Dorann Bunkin, chief policy counsel of the FCC Media Bureau’s Video Division, and a legal advisor to the commission’s Incentive Auction Task Force.

“But under our channel-sharing rules, each party must ‘retain spectrum usage rights adequate to ensure a sufficient amount of shared capacity to allow [the parties] to provide at least one SD program stream at all times,’” she said.

Sharing a channel is one of three options for broadcasters participating in the auction, scheduled to begin March 29, 2016. They can elect to go off the air, relinquish their 6 MHz of spectrum but retain their license and share, or move to a lower VHF assignment.

Erin Griffith, attorney advisor in the Auctions Division of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, described the sequence of events in the application process:

“Opening prices will be announced at least 60 days before the application deadline. The reverse auction application window will open in fall of 2015, with exact dates [to come.] A licensee must [identify] for each station, every bid option for which it would consider bidding in the reverse auction. Applicants are not required to bid on the options they identify; and cannot later bid for any option they fail to identify.

“Once applications are submitted and accepted… On March 29, 2016, applicants must commit to a preferred initial relinquishment bid option—which would be going off the air for a licensee whose preferred option is to give up its channel and share. By doing so, the bidder commits to relinquish the relevant spectrum usage rights at the opening price.”

The channel-sharing arrangement, or CSA, can follow stations through other options, e.g., in a scenario where station No. 1 elects to go off Channel 49 and share with station No. 2 at Channel 21, and station No. 2 accepts a bid to go to a VHF, both can share that VHF, Bunkin said.

The party that relinquishes spectrum to share with another station is the “sharee;” the host broadcaster is the “sharer.”

Channel-sharing stations remain primary FCC licensees. They are entitled to the same cable and satellite carriage rights, Bunkin said.

Broadcasters will be able to decide how to divvy up the 6 MHz. The FCC will not require the bitstream to be divided equally, only that each channel-sharing licensee must be able to provide at least one SD stream at all times.

There will be no “forced marriages” between sharing partners, Bunkin said. The non-shared partner can seek to change its status.

A sharee may change community of license if it can’t satisfy the community of license’s signal requirement from the sharer’s site. A sharee may not make a community-of-license change that will change its designated market area, although it can locate its transmitter in another DMA if it covers the sharee’s community of license.

Full-power and Class A stations may share with one another. A Class A sharee that relinquishes its channel to share with a full-power licensee will be able to have a full-power signal, but will remain a Class A in all other respects, including carriage rights.

A full-power sharee that moves in with a Class A is subject to Class A rules governing power levels and interference, but remains subject to all other rules and policies applicable to full-power stations, including carriage rights.

Commercial and non-commercial educational stations can share, including those on a reserved channel. An NCE, whether a sharee or a sharer, will retain its NCE status. A reserve-channel NCE may transfer its license only to another qualified NCE entity.

Broadcasters hammer out their own agreements, but a CSAmust affirm that each party provide at least one SD stream at all times. It also must contain provisions outlining each licensees rights and responsibility regarding the physical facility, shared transmission facilities and allocation of bandwidth within the channel. It may include contingent rights, such as puts, calls, options, rights of first refusal, etc.

A CSA also may be term limited. Bunkin said the FCC is looking at how to handle second-generation sharing agreements.

“We will be making rules on that,” she said.

A licensee proposing a sharing arrangement with itself need not prepare a CSA for the commission.

A quiet period will be imposed on all stations participating in the auction at the end of the application window with the exception of stations with an executed CSA.

“Parties to an executed CSA filed with a reverse auction applications may communicate with each other about their bids and bidding strategies during the auction,” the FCC’s channel-sharing presentation stated. “This exception only applies to an applicant that submits an executed CSA to the commission prior to the applications filing deadline.”

The quiet period will apply to stations with unexecuted or post-auction CSAs.

A sharee will have 90 days from receipt of auction proceeds to terminate operations on its pre-auction channel. It may request a 90-day extension of that deadline. The sharee must submit a construction permit application that includes the executed CSA 60 days before termination deadline.

An applicant that executes a CSA after the auction also may have a 90-day extension of the termination deadline. By 60 days before the termination deadline, it has to submit its construction permit application, including its executed CSA (redacted where appropriate)

Winning “shareeswill not get a piece of the $1.75 billion repack fund.

Sharing among non-Class A low-power television stations is being taken up in a separate rulemaking, Bunkin said.

Also see…
August 11, 2015
Incentive Auction To Cost $226 Million
The commission adopted procedures laying out the logistics of the two-part auction.

March 11, 2014
L.A. Stations Decode Channel-Sharing Question
The report reflects the findings of the two participating stations and to the extent that similar combinations of stations arise elsewhere, this testing may serve as a baseline assessment of channel sharing.