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NAB’s Kaplan: Rushed Incentive Auction in 2014 Will ‘Fail’

WASHINGTON – The veritable buffet of issues raised by the fed’s TV spectrum incentive auction proposal lead Rick Kaplan to a singular conclusion.

“The breadth and depth of these critical issues, among many others, lead me to one simple conclusion: If the commission insists on holding this auction—and does so—in 2014, the auction will almost certainly fail,” Kaplan told those gathered at a Media Institute luncheon Monday.

Kaplan, formerly of the Federal Communications Commission, is now executive vice president of strategic planning for the National Association of Broadcasters. In a transcript of his remarks, Kaplan cracked wise about being invited to speak because CTIA The Wireless chief Chris Guttman-McCabe was “unavailable.” CTIA recently launched an offensive to secure broadcast auxiliary spectrum in the 2 GHz band.

Kaplan said the TV channel repacking resulting from incentive auction would be the “most robust and complex” ever undertaken.

“Whereas during the DTV transition the commission relocated approximately 100 stations, and those moves were orchestrated over several years, in this instance, the commission is likely to relocate many hundreds of stations, and attempt to sort through that process in a matter of minutes or hours,” he said.

He then enumerated what he said were “a slew of tough economic, engineering and policy choices.”

How much spectrum is allocated to licensed versus unlicensed use, for example. How does the commission intend to attract sellers and determine how much they’ll be paid. (I.e., the “incentive” portion of the auction provides that broadcasters get a piece of the proceeds. No one yet knows just how big—or small—that cut will be.) Coordination with Canada and Mexico remains up in the air, as does the band plan. The commission proposed a split band plan to which both the NAB and wireless providers object. It also does not designate the status of frequency- versus time-division duplexing operations, nor how the $1.75 billion broadcaster and cable operator relation fund will be administered within three years of the auction. Another issue—who, if anyone, gets to operate on the sold spectrum before it’s deployed by wireless operators.

If the FCC persists in holding the auction in June of 2014 without resolving these issues, Kaplan said it was doomed. Either not enough stations will participate, and/or those that remain on the air will suffer debilitating interference, as could adjacent wireless services.

He said it was not the NAB’s to delay the auction.

“We would love to see the auction held tomorrow and it go off without a hitch,” he said. “The longer the auction process drags on, the more we lose. The last thing we want is this proceeding hanging over our heads any longer than it must.”

Kaplan said there was “no question” that rushing the auction “could lead to fewer volunteers.” He took a shot at the FCC’s LEARN website, created to “educate” broadcasters about their auction opportunities.

“Under the remarkably strained ‘LEARN’ acronym—apparently ‘GET OUT’ didn’t work or was trademarked--the commission has been diligently attempting to convince broadcasters that their future as broadcasters is not as shiny as the cash the FCC plans on waiving in front of them to exit the business,” he said. “Let’s face it, that money will come in handy given the kind of resources one needs these days to pay those steep cable and smartphone bills.”

For the auction to work, Kaplan said broadcasters will need to know where the commission needs stations to voluntarily give up all or part of their 6 MHz license, and how much they’ll get for it, and even how to participate in the auction. He brought up past examples of efforts to redesignate spectrum that did not go so well. The lower portion of the 700 MHz band that broadcasters gave up in the 2009 digital transition now lays fallow because of unresolved interference issues, he said. LightSquared’s spectrum plan also was derailed by interference.

“A wide swath of essentially unused spectrum, save for the GPS receivers that apparently have an impenetrable Star Wars-like force field around what otherwise would be billions of dollars worth of spectrum for mobile broadband,” he said.

On the other hand, he said that when the commission took its time and didn’t cave to “political pressures to rush spectrum to market, the results have been promising.” He said its decision to deny Dish’s request for a waiver on delivering mobile services terrestrially in the S-band.

Kaplan called on the FCC to revise its band plan and put it out for another round of comments. In addition to the split plan, the FCC is proposed a variable plan in which the same channel can be occupied by either a TV station or a wireless provider in adjacent markets. It won’t work, he said

“It’s basic engineering,” he said.

“The best way traditionally to deal with that problem is to ensure there is enough geographic separation between the two services,” he said. “But in this case, if you do that, the separation needs to be so great that the new wireless license areas will need to be

Kaplan said the original point of the incentive auction was to create a nationwide contiguous swath of spectrum for wireless broadband. He said to do so, it should first “lay out a number of nationwide repacking scenarios,” and from there determine where and how many stations it needs to participate in the auction. It then needs to calculate how much each of those licenses would bring at auction, and make a nationwide estimate to entice volunteers. The endeavor should be undertaken with a priority to protect broadcasters rather than designate guard band spectrum for unlicensed spectrum, he said.

“In my view, the FCC should spend less time trying to increase the size of guard bands in the upcoming auction and more time protecting and cultivating the unlicensed TV white spaces use in which it and many private companies have already invested,” he said. “The irony here is that, if the FCC becomes so hungry to repack broadcasters as tightly as possible to free up every last megahertz for mobile broadband, it will eliminate the significant unlicensed opportunities it just ‘unleashed’ just a couple of years ago.”

Kaplan said the auction proceeding was too complicated to settle with just “a run-of-the-mill notice and comment rulemaking.”

“The commission can’t afford to get this one wrong,” he said, “and thus needs to be as engaged as ever with industry and the public at large to ensure its decision-making is sound.”