NAB Challenges FCC’s Authority to Alter OET-69

WASHINGTON – The broadcast lobby is questioning regulators’ authority to revise OET-69, the methodology used to calculate the coverage area of a TV station. Executives with National Association of Broadcasters went to the Federal Communications Commission Thursday to “express NAB’s serious reservations” with proposed changes to OET-69. The FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology this week issued an updated version of OET-69 in a Public Notice, and asked for feedback on it.

“By making substantive alterations to OET-69 at this stage of the process, NAB explained that the commission was inviting unnecessary delay into the process, and would cause widespread uncertainty for broadcasters who may be deciding whether to participate in the auction and how to go about protecting their viewers in the event they do not,” the NAB said in its ex parte filing describing the meeting.

The NAB contingent had three particular nits with the revision—the FCC’s authority to change it now; why it was carried out as a notice rather than a rulemaking; and that it would create chaos.

“These changes appear to violate Congress’s clear direction in the Spectrum Act,” the NAB said.

The legislation directs the FCC to “make all reasonable efforts to preserve, as of the date of the enactment of this Act, the coverage area and population served of each broadcast television licensee, as determined using the methodology described in OET Bulletin 69…”

“Congress plainly intended the commission to apply OET-69 as it existed at the time of the legislation’s enactment,” the NAB stated.

However, sources on Capitol Hill say the law’s intent was to make sure the same number of households receiving TV signals now continues to receive them after the tentative June 2014 spectrum incentive auction. They say it was not intended to enjoin the FCC from revising OET-69.

One long-time broadcast attorney countered that changing OET-69 could fundamentally change TV station coverage areas. One change in particular—the use of revised population data—means that the same number of households could be served in a smaller geographic coverage contour, allowing closer packing of stations. The same attorney questioned the FCC’s claim that the current OET-69 uses 1990 Census data, which he said was updated in 2007. The revised OET-69 uses 2010 Census data said to comprise 24 percent more people than the 1990 version.

Just how the new version of OET-69 will impact TV station coverage contours remains to be seen. The revision, released on the FCC website in software dubbed “TVStudy,” is Mac-based and may require “minor modifications” for Windows users. It also requires the downloading of nearly 15 GB of database files.

The NAB also questioned why the OET-69 revision was carried out by the OET rather than as a full commission rulemaking.

“The commission has, in the past, made comparable changes at the commission and not staff level,” the NAB said. “Furthermore, one of the same changes proposed in the Public Notice—regarding ‘flagged’ cells—has been addressed twice previously by the commission and rejected both times.”

“Flagged” cells refer to geographic units within the OET-69 methodology where reception is assumed but not confirmed. The NAB said altering how flagged cells are interpreted could “affect the coverage area and population served for some stations by 25 to 30 percent,” and thus may violate the “express language of the Spectrum Act.”

Finally, the NAB contingent said changing OET-69 now “creates substantial uncertainty for broadcasters and the wireless industry.” It agreed that an OET-69 revision was in order, just not now, and not through a Public Notice, but rather a full rulemaking.

“This proceeding is not an appropriate forum because, beyond speeding up the processing of the nationwide repack—which can be done through other means—
the package of changes contemplated are highly unlikely to yield any appreciable benefit for stakeholders in the auction,” NAB said. “Rather, as the commission has previously found in addressing this area, they will result in uncertainty and disruption.”

The NAB’s skepticism runs counter to the initial impressions of radio-frequency expert and TV Technology contributor Doug Lung, who said in today’s “RF Report” that he was “impressed with the improvements.”

“I've written several articles on the inaccuracies in the current OET-69 software,” Lung said. “Once I'm able to obtain a copy of the software, examine the code, and run some studies to compare with field test results, I'll be able to provide a better analysis of the proposed changes.”

The FCC’s OET-69 revision docket is No. 13-26. Comments are due on the software update by March 21, 2013. Replies are due Aril 5, 2013.

~ Deborah D. McAdams

Also see…
Feb. 8, 2013,FCC OET-69 Update Appears Promising
In reviewing the Public Notice on the updated OET-69, I'm impressed with the improvements. I've written several articles on the inaccuracies in the current OET-69 software and presented a summary of them in my RF Delusions presentation at the 2006 NAB Show.

Feb. 6, 2013,NAB: OET-69 Update Injects ‘Legal Uncertainty
“We are extremely concerned about the Public Notice.”

Feb. 5, 2013,FCC Reveals Crucial Piece of TV Repacking Model”
The FCC has quietly revealed what amounts to its methodology for repacking TV channels in the post-incentive auction spectrum band. The agency released a new version OET-69 software that it intends to use for the repacking, and is seeking input on its efficacy.