FCC Drills Down Into Auction Items

WASHINGTON—Regulators issued several rules and proposals related to the 2015 TV spectrum incentive auction. Wireless mics, channel repacking and white spaces were addressed in the regular monthly meeting of the Federal Communications Commission held Tuesday. The sports blackout rule was also eliminated and satellite licensing rules were amended.

Regarding the repack of TV stations into whatever spectrum remains after the auction, the commission issued a 3-2 Declaratory Ruling “clarifying how the repacking approach it adopted in the Incentive Auction Report & Order meets Congress’s mandate to make all reasonable efforts to independently preserve TV station coverage areas and population served. Given the importance of this issue, the commission took today’s action to ensure that its approach is fully understood by the public and by broadcasters that could be affected by the repacking that follows the incentive auction.”

The ruling passed on a partisan vote by Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, over Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Reilly dissenting.

The ruling is seen as a pre-emptive legal maneuver in advance of the court briefings triggered by the lawsuit brought by the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB sued the commission in August over its repacking methodology, which the broadcast group says reduces TV station coverage in violation of federal law. The NAB notes that Congress directed the FCC in the Spectrum Act to preserve TV station coverage as it was measured Feb. 22, 2012.

“NAB believes the FCC’s procedure here is quite suspect. The court will have to decide if it passes legal muster,” said Dennis Wharton of the NAB. The case is under the purview of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. (See “NAB Sues FCC Over Incentive Auction Rules.”)

With regard to wireless mics, the commission released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will serve as a framework for their usage and protections in the reduced TV band. The NPRM also suggests opening up additional spectrum bands for wireless mics.

Wireless mics have operated for decades as unlicensed devices in unused TV frequencies. The 2010 order opening those unused frequencies, or “white spaces,” to new types of unlicensed devices triggered a two-channel set-aside for wireless mics. Those channels were to be in the UHF spectrum, which is the incentive auction target area. Since the passage of the incentive auction bill in early 2012, wireless mic manufacturers have been hamstrung by not knowing what frequencies ultimately will be available to users.

“It’s forced all of us to take a step back,” David Marsh of Audio-Technica told TV Technology correspondent Steve Harveyin March. “The last thing we want to do is introduce an analog, or even a digital, product in the 600 or 500 MHz UHF range.”

Engineering consultants say that while most broadcasters have licensed their low-power wireless gear, some may have not. Retuning may be possible in some cases, but “since the UHF band is huge, most wireless devices like that are ‘band-specific.’ Manufacturers carve up the UHF band into segments – so you have some wireless mics that work on Chs. 24-30, some that work on Chs. 30-36, etc. So many low- power devices may not be capable of being retuned.”

The NPRM is docket No. 14-166. Comment deadlines were not available at press time.

On the continued use of unlicensed devices in white spaces, the commission issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to “allow for more robust service and efficient spectral use” in the TV band. The commission’s June incentive auction order also allows unlicensed devices to operate in the guard bands between TV and wireless broadband services, and on Ch. 37 concurrent with radio astronomy. The FCC’s NPRM seeks feedback on how to structure those operations while ensuring interference protections for licensees.

The elimination of the sports blackout rule is unrelated to the incentive auction but came in the same monthly meeting. The commissioners voted 5-0 to repeal its rule prohibiting satellite and cable operators from airing any sports events blacked out on local broadcast outlets. The move removes commission protection of the National Football League’s own policy of requiring local TV stations to black out a game if the team doesn’t sell a certain percentage of tickets within 71 hours of the event.

“The order finds that the commission’s sports blackout rules are no longer justified in light of the significant changes in the sports industry since these rules were first adopted nearly 40 years ago. At that time, ticket sales were the primary source of revenue for the NFL and most NFL games failed to sell out. Today, television revenues have replaced ticket sales as the NFL’s main source of revenue, and blackouts of NFL games are increasingly rare. The NFL is the most profitable sports league in the country, with $6 billion in television revenue per year, and only two games were blacked out last season.”

The league can still impose black-outs without the FCC sanction.

The commission issued a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to “increase satellite operational flexibility, eliminate outdated information requirements and update rules to better accommodate evolving technology.”

Specifically, the FNPRM facilitates international coordination of satellite networks by allowing early submissions to the International Telecommunication Union; simplifies the demonstration of “milestone requirements” and eliminates still others; revises two-degree spacing requirement to better accommodate small antennae; and expands options for routine earth station licensing.