NAB 2016: Wheeler Said ATSC 3.0 Will Circulate This Month

A queue formed outside N249 where FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler spoke Wednesday morning at the 2016 NAB Show.

LAS VEGAS—Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission will take up ATSC 3.0.

“ATSC 3.0 is significant,” he said. “We need to move with dispatch to get that into the public debate. I intend to put that out for public notice before the end of the month.”

He congratulated engineers for creating 3.0, but he said policy would be another matter.

“I’ve been hearing about 3.0 for a long time, and they’ve pulled it off technically. The question is, you’ve got the technology part licked, now we’ve got to figure out the impact on the market and on the consumer,” he said.

The chairman spoke at the NAB Show on Wednesday with Marci Burdick, NAB board member and former chair of Schurz Broadcasting. In addition to the ATSC 3.0 Public Notice, he said the spectrum optimization plan, which will “give us an idea of the size and the scope of who is showing up,” and the clearing target, also will be released before the end of the month.

“We’ll know the band plan, then we’ll start the reverse auction in May,” he said.

“Wireless providers keep saying they need more spectrum,” Wheeler said. “There will be a very significant chunk of it before the end of the month. Then we’ll know how badly they really needed the spectrum. Then we’ll find out how much they’ll bid, and if they don’t bid enough, we’ll do it again, and again…” He said the auction would go through as many stages as necessary to achieve market balance.

Wheeler previously called the auction an “extravaganza,” which Burdick took to imply that a large number of broadcasters would be participating. Meaning what, Burdick asked. “Meaning people will show up,” Wheeler replied. When she pressed him for more information, he said, “it’s bigger than a bread box.”

“What’s important is putting spectrum to its highest and best use through marketplace forces. That has to be goal one, but, that should not overlook the fact that after the final gavel goes down, that’s when the work begins,” he said.

The commission needs to make sure those licensees who continue to stay in broadcasting can go through that transition, he said.

“There has been an attitude that this is a one-and-done kind of thing when the bidding starts. Not so. Commissioner [Ajit] Pai and I disagreed talking about the FCC budget, when he was suggesting that the auction budget, which is supported by the auction revenues, should be cut because the auction’s over, but the auction’s not over. When the bidding is done, the heavy lifting begins.”

Wheeler said he recommended delaying the DTV transition because “we weren’t ready for it.”

“We’re putting together a team for informing the public post auction,” he said.

Burdick asked about the vacant channel plan, which would leave a UHF channel open for unlicensed devices. He said to watch what happens in the clearing plan.

“The question of how many vacant channel instances there will be, will come soon,” he said.

The vacant channel plan concerns LPTV and translator operators, who have no assurance of a channel in the repack. Burdick said LPTVs and dot-twos have been important to diversifying broadcasting. She said this was even more of a reason to wait until after the repack to take up the vacant channel plan.

Wheeler replied that LPTV folks are already raising the same types of issues with ATSC 3.0. He said funding for post-auction activities, “may include all stations,” but did not elaborate further.

Burdick asked what assurances could be given to the broadcasters in the room that if they cannot make their channel change within 39 months, that they would not have to go dark. Wheeler was indefinite, but he did say that if the $1.75 billion allocated by Congress for the repack was not enough, “I’ll lead the parade to get more.”

Burdick asked Wheeler if the retransmission process was broken, and he said no.

“It has worked well for a long time,” he said. “Retrans has existed for more than 20 years. A few things have changed. ATSC 3.0—what’s the impact on retrans? We’re living through lots of changes.”

Burdick asked why the retrans battle was so focused on broadcasters, since cable nets have the same issues with carriers. He said the statute covers broadcasters. Burdick said they all compete in the same arena, and viewers don’t know the difference. Burdick said that in smaller markets, there may be fewer stations doing news, “so I think that gives rise to the importance of exclusivity.”

Wheeler did note that, “if there is a place where the internet has fallen down, it’s ultra local. And that’s where [broadcasters] are.”

Burdick asked about the tardy ownership reviews. Wheeler said the 2010 and 2014 reviews would be completed by June.

“There will be a proposal on the floor that will garner at least three votes,” he said.

Burdick asks why there has not been meaningful change in ownership regulations.

Wheeler said his predecessor tried to find consensus and could not. He said consensus on ownership regulations was difficult. Burdick asks if it will have to be hashed out in court. Wheeler said probably not, that post-auction, broadcasting would be a different world.

Burdick noted that millions of people listen to radio and asked Wheeler what it saw for it in the future.

“I’ve got something that’s portable and free. With two criteria like that, never sell them short,” he said.

Wheeler said he listens to NPR all day in his office. He’s also a fan of satellite radio and listens to Broadway show tunes. He also said the AM revitalization had led to 500 applications for AMs to transmit on FC frequencies, and “that speaks for itself,” he said.

He also said wireless carriers increasingly are unlocking FM chips in cellphones.

“I think the marketplace is succeeding,” he said.