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House Bill Would Limit Spectrum Incentive Auction Plan

H.R. 2482, the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act, introduced in the House of Representatives this week by Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Gene Green (D-Texas), would remove many of the concerns that broadcasters have about the implementation of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan that would take away 120 MHz of TV spectrum, which could eventually lead to the demise of free, off-air local TV broadcasting.

Rep. Dingell acknowledged the problem in his introduction when he said “Congressman Green and I have sought answers from the Federal Communications Commission about the effects of broad incentive auction authority on broadcasters and consumers. The Commission has provided us little assurance that these effects will not be far-reaching and negative, so Congressman Green and I feel compelled to include more rigid protections in our bill.”

These protections are significant. The Act permits repacking, but the FCC could only change the frequency of a TV station if, as the law states, it “consists of a 6 MHz channel, located between 14 and 50, inclusive, in the same geographic market and with the same city of license.” (Note that reassignment to a VHF channel would not be permitted.)

In addition, the new assignment must preserve the licensee’s “signal power level,” “tower height or transmission architecture,” and “interference levels with respect to such licensee’s signal.” This means that stations that do not participate in the incentive auction won’t lose anything when it comes to coverage.

The Act requires that stations be reimbursed for the cost of changing channels and is specific in what is included—including the cost of consumer education efforts stemming from reassignments and “any other costs directly or indirectly resulting from the reassignment of channels in a designated market area.” This includes update, replacement or relocation of translator or booster stations associated with the relevant full power license.

The act also provides protection for LPTV stations. In the National Broadband Plan and the studies released by the FCC supporting it, LPTV stations were ignored, as their secondary status offered them no protection.

Under the proposed act the FCC would be required to find an LPTV station that was losing its channel in repacking a replacement channel with similar population coverage and, as with full power stations, it would have to be a UHF channel. However, if the FCC can’t find a UHF channel, it would allocate two LPTV stations to share one UHF channel. Each LPTV sharing a channel would get half the bandwidth (approximately 9.7 Mbps). If this isn’t possible, as a last resort the LPTV station would have to be assigned a full 6 MHz high-band VHF channel (7–13).

The act would also ensure that some spectrum remained for unlicensed uses. The language here is interesting, as it implies a maximum of 84 MHz, not 120 MHz, would be assigned through competitive bidding. It states, “With respect to frequency bands between 54 and 72 MHz, 76 and 88 MHz, 174 and 216 MHz, 470 and 698 MHz, 84 MHz shall be assigned via a competitive bidding process. A portion of the proceeds from the competitive bidding of the frequency bands identified in the prior sentence may, if consistent with the public interest, be disbursed to other licensees, for the purpose of ensuring that unlicensed spectrum remains available in these frequency bands, nationwide, and in each local market.”

The proposed act does not explain what frequencies might be available for wireless microphone and other low power auxiliary communications now using TV spectrum.

The House spectrum legislation was supported by the NAB, the Communications Workers of America, the Public Safety Alliance, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, the National Sheriff’s Association, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The support from public safety organizations is likely due to the Act assigning all the Block D spectrum to public safety instead of auctioning it for use as a private/public safety partnership.

Engineers have been studying how much spectrum might be made available from repacking, and based on the results presented at the FCC’s Broadcast Engineering Forum it was clear there was no way to come even close to the National Broadband Plan’s goal of taking 120 MHz of spectrum from broadcast TV without a significant impact on the stations that remained.

One of the ideas suggested by National Broadband Plan proponents included reducing a television station’s protected service area, which would allow stations on the same channel to move closer together but at the price of a larger interference area between them. Under that scenario large cities would keep TV service, but the suburbs between the major markets would lose service. The Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act would prevent that from happening to full service stations and minimize the impact on LPTV stations.

Let’s hope the Senate will work with Rep. Dingell and other House members to craft a final act that does as much to protect free off-air TV. Local broadcaster support for H.R. 2482 will be crucial.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.