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Congressmen urge FCC to reconsider ENG spectrum policy

Two influential Congress members have warned the FCC that a new policy on spectrum allocation for broadcast auxiliary services (BAS) “may seriously impair the ability of local television stations to provide the communities they serve with live, local coverage of emergencies and routine news events.”

The warning came in a letter last week to FCC chairman Michael Powell from Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. John D. Dingell, the committee’s ranking member.

The congressmen noted that local stations across the U.S. currently share seven BAS channels (1990-2110 MHz) for electronic newsgathering (ENG). Under the new plan, 35MHz of this spectrum will be reallocated to mobile satellite service (MSS) and advanced wireless service (AWS), reducing the current number of ENG channels from seven to five.

“As part of its decision, the FCC adopted a new ENG band plan based on the assumption that local stations will purchase and begin using new digital ‘narrowband’ ENG equipment,” the congressmen wrote. “The commission anticipates that the new equipment will be more efficient and thus enable local broadcasters to once again operate seven channels even though they now will have less spectrum overall.

“In our view, however, the procedures established by the commission governing the transition from the old to the new band plan and the method by which the stations are permitted to negotiate proper compensation raise several significant policy and practical concerns.”

First, they noted, the FCC’s decision establishes a one-year mandatory negotiation period for MSS operators to negotiate relocation compensation with local stations in the top 30 markets. These negotiations would take place before stations in these markets had to vacate their two ENG channels. However, television stations in markets outside the top 30, i.e., markets 31-210, would be required to first vacate their ENG channels and then try to commence relocation compensation negotiations with MSS operators.

“The decision appears to place local television stations in markets 31-210 in an untenable position,” the congressmen said. Because they must vacate their ENG channels before they negotiate, these stations must either use current equipment and reduce the number of channels they use for electronic newsgathering, or purchase new equipment so they will again have access to seven channels and hope for compensation at some future time. “Placing stations in medium and small markets in the position of either losing two channels or spending significant resources to maintain their current coverage appears to be contrary to the public interest.”

The letter also states that the FCC assumes television stations outside the top 30 television markets can afford to lose two ENG channels because there is lesser demand for news in these markets. “This assumption may be incorrect,” they said, asking that the FCC reexamine their position.

The congressmen went on to warn that operational problems may result from the new procedures required by FCC. Under the plan, television stations in the top 30 markets would negotiate with MSS operators. If the negotiations were successful, these stations would acquire new equipment and operate under the new narrowband, 7-channel ENG band plan. Given financial limitations in smaller markets, and lacking the ability to negotiate upfront, stations in markets 31-210 may decide to remain with the existing 5-channel band plan and lose two ENG channels.

“The likely result is that local stations in adjacent markets may be operating with inconsistent ENG band plans,” they said. “We understand that local stations generally coordinate ENG frequency use to avoid interference. But we further understand that, according to recent technical filings, coordination may be problematic when different ENG band plans are employed. So, significant interference to ENG transmissions may result when top 30 market television stations with new narrowband equipment attempt ENG operations in smaller markets that are still using the old ENG band plan.”

They also said that operational problems could result under the new rules should a disaster or other emergency take place near the border of two local markets where the stations in one market are utilizing the new band plan and the second market is operating on the old band plan.

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