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'Complete Chaos' Predicted if TV Repack is Done Right After Auctions

WASHINGTON: Repacking 1,800 full-power TV stations into 40 percent less spectrum in three years will be chaotic if there’s no planning period after incentive auctions. That was one takeaway of a workshop held Monday at the Federal Communications Commission for administering a $1.75 billion TV signal relocation fund.

“We don’t know how many stations will move, the impact on individual stations, or when moves begin,” said Jay Adrick, vice president of Broadcast Technology for Harris and a panelist at the workshop.

The auction process is part of the Administration’s directive to redesignate around 40 percent of the broadcast TV spectrum for broadband. However, because incentive auction legislation prohibits compulsory participation, there is no way to anticipate how many TV stations will have to be repacked in how much spectrum. The same bill, passed in February, allows three years for repacking that unknown number of TV stations into that unknown amount of spectrum.

Adrick predicted TV stations would fall into one of three scenarios. Fewer than five percent will likely be able to use their existing transmitter and antenna. Another 40 percent could retrofit facilities. Around 55 percent would need to replace transmitters and antennas—a major undertaking requiring specialized high-steel crews.

“There are only 14 tower crews that can do tall sticks,” said Adrick, referring to swapping three- to eight-ton TV transmission antennas on towers that can reach as high as 2,000 feet. Swapping or installing a TV stick typically takes an average of five weeks. “We’d better be careful with the assumption that we can do it in three years.”

Without a planning period following the spectrum auctions, Adrick said repacking the spectrum would be “complete chaos.”

Jane Mago, executive vice president and general counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters, agreed, saying the three-year shot clock should not start before a repacking plan is in place. It’s up to the FCC when to start it.

“The key is to provide service to the audience,” she said. “The statute expects TV coverage contours to be the same as they are now.”

The statute actually directs the commission to “make all reasonable efforts to preserve... the coverage area and population served of each broadcast television licensee,” in accordance with the Longley-Rice method.

Adrick said it would be a “real challenge to fit everything into a band plan that preserves coverage.”

Brett Haan, principal with Deloitte Consulting, said the U.K. regulatory authority, Ofcom, determined that duplicative coverage could not be achieved in its DTV repacking.

“Engineering became an issue that was just dragging the process out,” he said. Haan favored starting the three-year shot clock as soon as incentive auctions were finished to allow bidders rapid access to the TV spectrum.

The channel repacking would mark the second such undertaking since the 2009 digital transition, when 108 MHz of broadcast spectrum was auctioned off to wireless carriers. Grants were made available to public stations for the 2009 repacking, but commercial broadcasters were not covered.

They were, however, reimbursed by Sprint Nextel for moving newsgathering operations into smaller swaths of spectrum. Sprint spent $750 million relocating broadcast auxiliary service operations for nearly 1,000 TV stations. The transition was part of a $4.8 billion deal Sprint Nextel brokered with the FCC to move from the 800 MHz to the 2 GHZ band, used by TV stations for ENG transmissions.

The work was completed in 2010 after a three-year delay. The original deadline was September, 2007, but the endeavor was more complicated than expected. More than 100,000 pieces of gear had to be replaced, with Sprint having to approve inventories, orders and receipts for reimbursement.

Congress provided $1.75 billion to reimburse broadcasters in the upcoming repacking. FCC Media Bureau chief, Bill Lake, said reimbursements would cover costs incurred in the repacking but not lost revenues. Money also be reserved for “comparable facilities” versus “gold-plating,” or upgrading to better equipment.

With technology evolving so rapidly, the line between the two may be obsolescence. Mago said that buying the best available equipment shouldn’t constitute gold-plating. The repack is likely to catch some broadcasters in the process of adding mobile DTV capability, as well. Adrick said adding a vertical component for a horizontal-only station to do mobile was a “minor add-on, not gold-plating.”

Rebecca Hanson, the FCC’s spectrum director, asked Adrick if vendors might prepare for the repacking.

“Only after the auctions can anything begin to be planned,” he said. “Until we know what it looks like, there’s not much we can do to plan ahead. Transmitters require frequency and power specifications for each station. We can’t go ahead and start cutting metal until we’re knowledgeable about those issues.”

Patricia Tikkala, vice president of spectrum for Sprint, said pre-ordering equipment in the BAS transition caused delays because technology improved after the fact. More than 60 percent of the BAS participants had change orders. She said reimbursement tax issues must also be clarified.

In addition to determining what gear is eligible for reimbursement, the commission will have to decide whether or not to pay certain costs in advance. Mago said some low-power and public stations are concerned about upfront funding. Adrick concurred, saying many LPTVs are working on “day-to-day cash flow. They’re not likely to be able to transition without upfront money.”

The commission may either require itemized receipts, as Sprint did, or established predetermined price ranges for gear. Haan said paying against receipts is cumbersome.

“I’ve rarely seen invoices come in to the penny,” he said. “Usually, there’s very little deviation on hard costs.”

During a Q&A session, Jay Herman of Spectrum Evolution asked Adrick about the use of distributed transmission systems in a repack.

“It may be a solution for certain markets,” he said. “There are issues with the 8-VSB modulation, particularly with he type of terrain between transmission sites.... There’s a deployment in Reading, Penn.; Idaho Public Television is doing one with ATSC. It’s certainly possible, but until we know how many channels we’re going to reclaim, how many stations there are, where they are, and the border issues—there’s a 200-mile path along the border—we can’t know with certainty. But it should be considered.”

Tower placement is critical for avoiding creation of interference bands with distributed transmission, Adrick said. Cost could be higher than with traditional big-stick configurations.

“How many stations are going away?” he said. “That’s what we need to know.”


Deborah D. McAdams