Walden Bill Would let TV Stations Use Alternative Transmission Systems

Thursday the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology approved the "Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum" (JOBS) Act of 2011 with a bipartisan vote of 17 to 6. The text of the JOBS Act wasn't available Thursday night, but based on the Discussion Draft the bill presents some interesting opportunities for broadcasters.

The Act would transfer certain Federal spectrum in the 1675-1710 MHz, 1755-1780 MHz and 3550-3650 MHz bands for commercial wireless broadband services. It also allocates some of the 700 MHz spectrum from the DTV transition for public safety use (see the Discussion Draft for details on this spectrum). A significant part of the JOBS Act is devoted to incentive auctions and reallocation of spectrum in the TV broadcast band.

Broadcasters would first participate in a reverse auction to identify the incentive amount, as the draft JOBS Act explains. "The Commission shall conduct a reverse auction to determine the amount of compensation that each broadcast television licensee would accept in return for voluntarily relinquishing some or all of its broadcast television spectrum usage rights..." Once the amount of spectrum was identified the FCC would repack the TV band to make it available for other uses. The FCC would then take this spectrum and offer it in a forward auction to wireless carriers and other bidders.

Broadcasters wouldn't be able to opt out of the repacking, but the JOBS Act would not allow the FCC to involuntarily move a station from UHF to VHF or from high-VHF to low-VHF. The Act states, "...the Commission shall 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 license, as determined using the methodology described in OET Bulletin 69 of the Office of Engineer and Technology of the Commission."

Some of the funds (real or expected) from the auction would be reserved to reimburse broadcasters and cable operators for "costs reasonably incurred" by stations moving to other channels, sharing channels, or giving up their spectrum completely and moving to cable only distribution.

The FCC would be required to make all reimbursements not later than three years after the completion of the forward auction.

In my upcoming Dec 7 RF Technology column in TV Technology, I describe papers at the IEEE Broadcast Technology Symposium covering future technology for broadcast TV technology that is not backwards compatible with existing receivers. The JOBS Act would allow broadcasters "a waiver of the service rules of the Commission to permit the licensee, subject to interference protections, to make flexible use of the spectrum assigned to the licensee to provide services other than broadcast television services." This provision, however, has conditions: "Such waiver shall only remain in effect while the licensee provides at least 1 broadcast television program stream on such spectrum at no charge to the public." Any alternative technology that would require a waiver would unlikely be received on existing TV sets or converter boxes. Would the Act allow this free broadcast program stream be transmitted using DVB-T2, an LTE variant, or any other system that was incompatible with existing TV sets, as long as it was free?

Broadcasters would not receive this flexibility automatically – it would be in lieu of reimbursement for relocation cost.

As the JOBS Act moves through the legislative process, some of the uncertainty and questions may be answered or Congress may leave it up to the FCC to work out the details in a rule making.

The National Association of Broadcasters appears to like the draft JOBS Act. NAB President Gordon Smith said, "Chairman Walden's bill represents a major step forward in ensuring that local television stations will continue to be able to serve our vast and diverse audiences with local news, entertainment, sports and emergency weather information. Our position remains unchanged since this debate began: NAB has no quarrel with voluntary spectrum auctions so long as non-volunteer broadcasters and our viewers are not punished."

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.