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Low-Power TV Stations Hang in Incentive Auction Balance

WASHINGTON – Daniel Grise of Dickinson, Texas, wants more free low-power TV channels, not fewer.

“The FCC forced me to purchase a new television set based on the promise of more free over-the-air channels,” he writes. “And the cable provider continues to overcharge for TV service, so I installed an antenna. Well, the options for content and signal are amazing; so many foreign language-based programs. Do not shut down my local LPTV station.”

Grise is among those individuals and organizations who have filed comments and replies on the Federal Communications Commission’s TV spectrum incentive auction Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The proposal excludes the nation’s 1,980 non-Class A low-power TV stations and another 4,175 translator licensees from participating. Only the 1,782 full-power and 465 Class A TV stations may relinquish all or some of their spectrum for a portion of the proceeds of the auction—and be guaranteed a channel assignment when remaining stations are repacked into a diminished spectrum band.

Consequently, non-Class A LPTVs may be squeezed off the band. Eric Wotila of Cadillac, Mich., implored the commission to preserve a digital LPTV station he started in his community.

“We’re able to make a 24/7 local news channel and two channels of classic television programming available to tens of thousands of antenna TV viewers in a rural area who would, without our station, only receive one or two channels with limited local programming,” he said. “Low-power TV stations that have operated in good faith and have complied with their license should be protected and kept on the air.”

The Advanced Television Broadcasting Alliance representing LPTVs said that when low-power licensees “accepted secondary status in the broadcast band, it was with the understanding that LPTV was secondary... only to full-power TV stations…. Under such parameters, LPTV owners spent millions of dollars building out their broadcast facilities, as well as applying for new LPTV licenses in the latest FCC windows. By stating the risks and then changing the parameters after broadcasters had spent considerable amounts of money, the FCC has essentially pulled the rug out from under LPTV broadcasters and the public they serve.”

The incentive auction NPRM is the commission’s foundation proceeding for re-assigning 120 MHz of television spectrum—20 TV channels—for wireless broadband. Victor Tawil of the National Association of Broadcasters gave a presentation at the Feb. 26 Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research Conference on how the loss of spectrum would impact TV stations. In the last U.S. digital TV transition, concluded in 2009, 200 stations had to be moved out of the UHF band so that 18 TV channels could be auctioned off to wireless providers.

For the FCC to reclaim another 20 channels under similar conditions, a total of 391 full-power and Class A TV stations in 86 markets would have to relinquish spectrum, according to Tawil’s presentation.

Translator licensees are concerned about being frozen out of the repack. Several representatives of the Montana and Utah Broadcasters Associations met with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and his staff, seeking assurance that the repack wouldn’t turn into a wholesale “reallocation exercise.”

“While translators did not receive formal protection in the statute… in Montana, Utah and other Western states, they are numerous and serve critical functions,” their filing stated. “Between our two states, we utilize more than 1,100 translators, which amounts to more than the entire Eastern seaboard combined. A significant number of these television translators in our states are used to serve small, rural areas with local television signals. Indeed, many of these translators are owned by small, local community groups and ‘television translator districts,’ which are groups of individuals in a community that have organized to bring local television to their remote towns.”

They said that cable TV is “rarely available” in such rural areas, and that satellite TV was often “prohibitively expense for those living well below the poverty line. Free over-the-air television is often the only link to the daily news of the state and emergency information.”

The contingent asked the FCC to not take more spectrum in rural areas that what was necessary, and to allow translators in reclaimed spectrum to continue operating “until—if ever—that spectrum is actually used by the corresponding wireless carrier.”

Reply comments are due on the NPRM today, Tuesday, March 12.

~ Deborah D. McAdams