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Spectrum sharing

As part of its push to repurpose television broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband use, the FCC has, since 2010, been promoting the idea of channel sharing. The idea is that two or more TV stations would share one 6MHz broadcast channel, each having its own program stream. To entice broadcasters to get on board with this plan, the FCC would afford each sharing station must-carry rights on cable and satellite.

The proposal

In November 2008, an assignment application was filed proposing a spectrum-sharing arrangement for some of the TV stations licensed to ION Media Networks. A new company, Urban Television, would acquire “share-time” licenses permitting it to broadcast over portions of ION station channels. ION would continue to be the licensee of, and would continue to operate, its existing stations on the same channels. Urban is owned 49 percent by ION and 51 percent by entities owned by BET founder Robert L. Johnson.

The plan involved dividing a single station's 6MHz channel into multiple, separately licensed digital streams capable of accommodating separately owned TV stations. As proposed by Urban, each stream would be designated a “television station” and so would be entitled to the same mandatory cable and satellite carriage afforded to every station. To make the plan more attractive to the FCC, Urban offered opportunities for minority entrepreneurs to participate in station ownership and programming.

FCC reaction

The FCC invited comments on the Urban proposal in 2008, but after three years of inaction, the commission summarily dismissed Urban's implementing applications this January.

In a letter not publicly released, the FCC ruled that the applications proposed “a division of time, not a division of spectrum.” But, this is a distinction without a difference in describing division of a digital television channel; today's digital television signal is a commingled stream in which the separate channels are created by interleaving data bits rather than partitioning a 6MHz channel into smaller independent frequency blocks. The FCC also noted, “Channel-sharing arrangements quite different from that proposed here have become the subject of an outstanding Notice of Proposed Rule Making,” referring to the agency's own 2010 channel-sharing proposal. The commission provided no further explanation of its rejection, and it did not elaborate on the differences between ION's proposals and those being studied in the rulemaking.


Although it is not surprising the FCC would reject a novel industry proposal while it is developing its own approach to the same subject in a rulemaking, it is difficult to see what harm would have come from letting Urban's experiment go forward. The commission, in implementing plans to re-dedicate TV spectrum for broadband use, wants to entice broadcasters to operate jointly on a single TV channel. Why not fold the Urban-ION plan, however novel, into the rulemaking, or at least authorize its proposal on an experimental basis? An outright rejection with little explanation sends the wrong message.

The commission has spent considerable energy trying to allay broadcasters' concerns that channel sharing presents an unattractive way forward. But by rejecting an arguably viable plan to do just what the FCC has been encouraging the industry to do, the agency has left television broadcasters with the impression that spectrum sharing will proceed along government lines or not at all.


  • On or before April 1, 2012, noncommercial TV and Class A stations in Texas must file their biennial ownership reports.
  • On April 1, 2012, television stations in Maryland; Virginia; West Virginia; and Washington, D.C. must begin their renewal pre-filing announcements. Renewal applications for stations in these states are due June 1, 2012.
  • By April 1, 2012, TV and Class A TV stations in the following states must place their 2012 EEO reports in their public files and post them on their websites: Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.

Harry C. Martin is a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, PLC.

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