The Battle for Broadcast Spectrum

As the year draws to a close, this week I'll review some of the major stories I reported on in 2011 and follow up with some reckless predictions.

For anyone involved in selling or manufacturing broadcast transmitters or antennas, the biggest news was the uncertainty around what might happen to the broadcast TV spectrum after the FCC released its National Broadband Plan last year calling for taking almost half the remaining usable TV spectrum—120 MHz—and auctioning it off to wireless carriers. After being told repeatedly during the June 25, 2010 Broadcast Engineers Forum that this could not be done without causing serious harm to TV broadcasting, it appears that in the last year and a half the FCC's outside consultants and the FCC staff have not been able to figure out an acceptable way to reclaim the 120 MHz of TV spectrum the National Broadband Plan recommended. If they have, it hasn't been publicized.

Of course, before the FCC can launch incentive auctions for TV spectrum, Congress has to give them the authority. None of the incentive auction bills passed both the House and Senate. The last bill had a clear plan on how the auctions would be conducted and how broadcasters who didn't give up their spectrum would be protected. While the language gave the FCC some latitude, broadcasters' coverage would have been preserved and stations on UHF channels could not be moved to VHF channels. The FCC would have to take this into account when developing a new DTV Table of Allotments when the auctions were over.

Most of the bills giving the FCC incentive auction authority would withhold, or advance, some of the auction proceeds to cover the cost of any channel change after their original channel was reallocated. It isn't surprising that many broadcasters, especially those on higher UHF channels, have put plans to upgrade antennas on hold. This has put a strain on companies making broadcast TV antennas and related equipment. The irony is that should Congress pass an incentive auction bill and the FCC begin reallocating channels, they could end up busier than they were during the DTV transition, given the relatively short time the FCC is likely to give broadcasters to clear their old channels.

If the FCC wants to maximize broadcast spectrum efficiency, it could end up relocating many more stations than those outside the new "core." Even moving one or two stations in a market would have a ripple effect extending to distant markets, requiring relocation of stations on channels well away from those being auctioned.

What will happen to broadcast spectrum in 2012? See some of my reckless predictions below.

Doug Lung

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. As vice president of Broadcast Technology for NBCUniversal Local, H. Douglas Lung leads NBC and Telemundo-owned stations’ RF and transmission affairs, including microwave, radars, satellite uplinks, and FCC technical filings. Beginning his career in 1976 at KSCI in Los Angeles, Lung has nearly 50 years of experience in broadcast television engineering. Beginning in 1985, he led the engineering department for what was to become the Telemundo network and station group, assisting in the design, construction and installation of the company’s broadcast and cable facilities. Other projects include work on the launch of Hawaii’s first UHF TV station, the rollout and testing of the ATSC mobile-handheld standard, and software development related to the incentive auction TV spectrum repack.
A longtime columnist for TV Technology, Doug is also a regular contributor to IEEE Broadcast Technology. He is the recipient of the 2023 NAB Television Engineering Award. He also received a Tech Leadership Award from TV Tech publisher Future plc in 2021 and is a member of the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society and the Society of Broadcast Engineers.