Repack Perspective: S. Merrill Weiss Breaks Down Basics

METUCHEN, N.J.—When the upcoming TV spectrum incentive auction concludes later this year, the heavy lift begins. Several hundred TV station signals—as many as 1,200 according to one estimate—will have to be repacked into a reduced amount of spectrum. Think of running a giant electronic jigsaw puzzle through a compression codec to fit it into a smaller space. What’s more, consider that there will be no way to know which pieces will have to be fit into how much space, until after the auction.

By comparison, the repack following the 2009 digital transition involved a set amount of space and the knowledge of where nearly every puzzle piece would end up, much earlier in the process.

TV Technology has canvassed many experts over the last several months about how this next repack will be carried out, and what TV stations can do to anticipate it. We put the question to S. Merrill Weiss, a respected and well-known media engineer whose contributions were fundamental to the development and deployment of digital television. His credits include Fellow status with the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and winner of that group’s prestigious David Sarnoff Gold Medal Award, its highest technical recognition, the Progress Medal, the Engineering Achievement Award from the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Bernard J. Lechner Outstanding Contributor Award from the Advanced Television Systems Committee. 

Weiss provided a succinct and cogent breakdown of what TV stations and engineering personnel are up against with regard to the repack. Specifically, we ask what is necessary for stations to know and/or do immediately. Mr. Weiss responded as follows:

The answer is not simple. It all depends on the station’s position in the incentive auction and how the outcome of the auction affects the station’s situation.

There are a number of categories into which each station may fall. In addition, knowing what to do can be obscured from station personnel by upper-management decisions of which the station folks may be unaware. (I know first-hand of several cases of that sort.) The result can be that the stations cannot plan because they don’t know what possible fate awaits them. 

There can be good reasons for this, given the FCC’s proscription of communication to other participants of strategies and positions being taken in the auction.

To categorize at least some of the possible situations in which stations may find themselves, here are some that come to mind, on which I will elaborate below:
Stations that choose to go off the air;
Stations that choose to channel-share with one or more stations;
Stations that choose to move from one band to another (i.e., from UHF to High-VHF or to Low-VHF, from High-VHF to Low-VHF);
Finally, stations that are repacked whether they want to move or not.

Each of these categories brings a different set of considerations. Taking them one by one:

· Stations that choose to go off the air: It seems unlikely that station personnel will be told about such positions being taken in the auction, because such information could lead to a mass exodus for something that might never come to pass, depending on what happens in the auction.

Moreover, having station personnel on the street, seeking other employment, would serve to other stations as a signal of a station’s position in the auction, which communication is forbidden. Given this, I doubt such stations will be able to do anything in advance. Once the auction is over, the only things to be done will relate to preparing to shut down operations and to salvage whatever of a station’s facilities and equipment might have value post-auction. 

There will be 90 days after the auction, with the possibility of an extension of another 90 days, for the station to go off the air. Any salvage work can happen thereafter for as long as it takes. Of course, it also could be that a station will go off the air but maintain certain operations for distribution of its content by other means, for instance, by cable or by Internet delivery.

· Stations that choose to channel-share: This is one category in which stations can prepare, if their personnel know about the plan to share. (They very well may not know of such plans, for reasons similar to those already described.)

Even in cases in which station personnel know of sharing plans, it may not be possible to move forward beyond planning because actual implementation of such plans is likely to depend on one or more of the sharing parties being successful in the auction. So, implementation will depend on knowledge of such success.

Considering the planning that can be done before the auction is finished, it largely will focus on designing the facilities for a joint operation, selecting the protocols used to connect the stations together, deciding where to place certain equipment such as encoding pools, and so on. Some of this already has been done, in some cases, as a part of channel-sharing negotiations, but there may be other cases in which it is yet to be done.

Even when it has been done to a certain level for purposes of writing a contract, there still are likely to be details to be worked out, such as operating plans and the like.

· Stations that choose to move from one band to another: This is another category in which station personnel could prepare plans for post-auction facilities and operations—once again, if they know what position is being taken in the auction. 

Such plans could include preliminary technical designs and budgets. They would have to remain very preliminary because the real designs would depend quite heavily on what channels and coverage areas the stations are allotted by the FCC, which won’t be known until the auction is completed.

Then, there may be tradeoffs required to fit antennas and other equipment into the space available on towers or in transmitter rooms or shelters. Yet another possibility is that stations might be able to seek modification of the facilities that the FCC allots them, and that is likely to lead to design impacts, too.

· Stations that are repacked: Stations that choose not to participate in the auction may be orphaned in the middle of the new wireless broadband spectrum and have no changes to make. Others that either chose not to participate or that were not successful in the auction might be moved to a new spectrum location by the FCC.

In such cases, certain equipment that is channel-dependent is likely to have to be replaced, modified, or retuned, depending on its nature. Such changes are predictable and can be planned to some extent, although real planning will require knowledge of the actual channels to which the stations will move.

Again, there may be tradeoffs required due to space constraints of one sort or another (e.g., channel-dependent equipment can be larger at lower frequencies than at the higher frequencies from which the stations are likely to be moving).

Certainly, preliminary plans and budgets can be prepared, but they will have to be finalized post-auction, once the true outcome is known. Again, too, there may be opportunities for modifications of what the FCC allots to stations, which would be another cause for having to delay completion of planning and budgeting until after the auction and repack.

· Additional considerations: In respect to the last two cases, in which stations will remain on the air but move to new channels (including those that will channel-share on their new channels), it was mentioned that modifications of FCC-allotted facilities might be possible. This would be done to improve the service areas and signal strengths of the station facilities before they are built.

Planning for such potential opportunities could include lining up consultants to consider such possibilities as soon as the auction results are known. The chance exists that there will be a “land rush” after the auction, and, if there is, the stations that apply first are more likely to get what they might want than those that apply later. 

The extent to which this possibility will exist will depend on what the FCC will be willing to entertain post-auction. To some extent, that willingness will depend on what the commission already has decided, but they still are making decisions, leaving the potential for opening doors that may now seem closed.

Join Mr. Weiss on Tuesday, March 8 at 2:30 p.m. EST for “Drilling Down Into the Post-Auction Repack,” an exclusive Webinar produced by TV Technology and B&C, and also featuring theFCC’s Howard Symons; NAB’s Patrick McFadden and RF experts Jay Adrick and S. Merrill Weiss. Register here

Also see:
Feb. 26, 2016
McAdams On: The Repack
The post-incentive auction TV channel repack will make or break broadcasting. That’s not just my assessment, but the abridgment of many off-the-record conversations I’ve had over the last year with people who know a lot more than I do.