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Sinclair Broadcast Group urges FCC to grant ‘flexible use waivers’

The new watchwords of the television broadcast industry may well be “flexible use” when it comes to how spectrum is employed in the future, especially if TV viewers and broadcasters alike are to benefit from new technology developments.

That was the core message of Sinclair Broadcast Group (SBG) during an Aug. 20 meeting with representatives of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force. The meeting, summarized in a Sept. 4 letter to FCC secretary Marlene Dortch, focused on why the FCC, broadcasters and the viewing public would be best served if the agency grants TV licensees flexible use waivers that encourage broadcasters to develop and deploy what the letter dubbed as “newer, technically advanced services, including mobile services, for the American public.”

In the letter, SBG makes the case for the FCC encouraging broadcasters to seek flexible use waivers because doing so would “materially reduce claims on the repacking fund,” a reference to the $1.75 billion set aside to reimburse TV broadcasters for the cost of changing channel assignments as part of the incentive auction and spectrum repack.

“The FCC should establish a ‘standard waiver’ that any broadcaster in good standing may be granted simply by requesting it,” the letter says. “Those waivers could be sought in advance of the reverse auction, even before a broadcaster knows whether it will be repacked. If the auction closes, all licensees that requested the waiver and committed to forego reimbursement of repacking costs should be entitled to receive the waiver regardless of whether the station is repacked.” The result, it adds, would be to encourage broad participation and a “substantial reduction in claims” for expense reimbursement.

In broader terms, the impact of granting flexible use waivers to broadcasters would be to support a more “robust, evolving television broadcast service,” the letter says. The letter also references comments from Mark Aitken, SBG VP of Advanced Technology, that ATSC 3.0 — a next generation digital television broadcasting system that likely will not be backwards compatible with today’s A/53 DTV standard — “can be ready to implement sooner than is generally thought.” A flexible use waiver would permit broadcasters to deploy an ATSC 3.0 based digital broadcasting system.

The letter also addresses the thorny issue of leaving over-the-air viewers behind if an incompatible digital TV transmission system were to be deployed under a waiver.

“Although the FCC has the power to impose a specific broadcast standard, it is not obliged to do so,” the letter says. According to the letter, the agency has the power to waive “any and all technical and operating rules subject to the obligation of a licensee to continue providing a free-to-air broadcast service.”

Whether deploying an incompatible DTV transmission system would disenfranchise viewers, the letter notes that the whole reason for deploying a new system is “to reach more consumers more easily more often on more screens,” it says.

“The notion of universal reach is an illusion when the existing technical standard is difficult for many consumers to use even on television sets, and is not available at all on hundreds of millions of mobile screens,” the letter says.

The letter emphasizes that the FCC should encourage broadcasters to deploy new services that will reach consumers on the devices they are using today as well as their legacy devices.

“The strong broadcasters that would be willing to forego relocation costs must have expansive reach to cover extremely high operating costs…. Those broadcasters will find ways to transition without disenfranchising consumers…,” the letter says.