Dell’s OTA Shares Repack Solution

OTA Broadcasting thinks it has a way to give stations more time to make the post-incentive auction transition, better harmonize the eventual move to an ATSC 3.0 advanced transmission standard, and get spectrum in the hands of the wireless carriers more quickly following the close of the auction.

Call it the “share and share alike” proposal, or a way to pluck some potentially problematic stations out of the daisy chain of moves the FCC will have to make after the auction.

OTA is a broadcast group started by computer pioneer Michael Dell, presumably to accumulate stations to enter into the spectrum auction. The identities of those stations are protected, but OTA comprises independents in major markets, prime candidates for the auction.

OTA made its pitch in a filing at the FCC in response to requests for comment on the commission’s framework for potentially repacking 1,000 or more stations.

The idea is for the FCC to allow some stations to share channels temporarily during the repack transition.

The FCC tentatively concluded it would not allow temporary sharing of channels because viewers would have to retune their sets twice to find the station once it moved to the temporary channel.

Currently, only stations that give up spectrum in the auction are allowed to strike sharing agreements with other stations in the market, which would presumably be long-term agreements that allow those stations giving up spectrum to remain in the business.

But OTA is suggesting the FCC allow stations not in the auction, but moving to a new channel in the repack, to share channels on a temporary basis if they are “‘bottleneck stations’ that could expedite the transition by vacating their pre-auction channels in advance of their phase-completion date.”

The FCC is moving daisy chains of interrelated stations in a phased approach in which the move of one station is affected by that of another.

Stations that share during the transition could take longer to get up and running on their new channels, and the FCC could more quickly reclaim the old ones and turn them over to winning wireless bidders.

“The FCC can better achieve its goals of providing flexibility to broadcasters, minimizing disruption to viewers, and providing certainty to wireless providers by allowing broadcasters to enter into transitional channel sharing agreements,” OTA said.

Striking a Chord

The FCC has said it was looking for ways to improve its framework, and the above goals are all on its to-do list, so the plan would appear to have a good chance of striking a responsive chord with the commission.

OTA CEO Bill Tolpegin told the FCC it would be a “win-win-win-win” proposition: Broadcasters win by “freeing themselves of the pressure of constructing new facilities under tight time conditions,” and the threat of going dark if they can’t, he told the FCC, adding: “This could allow broadcasters to fully ‘sync-up’ their post-auction transition and their conversion to ATSC 3.0.”

Broadcasters in a linked-station set—those daisy chains of interrelated station moves—“‘win’ by removing uncontrollable barriers to their own transition,” Tolpegin added. Wireless carriers get the third win “by receiving the certainty that the commission has promised, with the possibility of obtaining faster access to the 600 MHz spectrum they purchased.”

“Fourth,” he said, “the public ‘wins’ by maintaining uninterrupted free, over-the-air broadcast television service while more rapidly experiencing the benefits of 600 MHz wireless spectrum.”

The NAB gave sharing a shout-out in its filing on the framework when it asked the FCC to remain open to “creative solutions…. There may be instances where it is feasible for a station to engage in temporary channel sharing with another station to allow stations to manage unanticipated delays while still attempting to comply with the commission’s assigned deadlines,” it told the FCC. But it also said those stations should get must-carry and retrans rights, “just as they would in channel sharing arrangements.”

Not so fast, say cable operators. NCTA: The Internet & Television Association says not only shouldn’t the FCC extend must-carry rights to temporary channel sharers, it can’t, because of Cable Act language that says those rights only apply to “licensed” stations on “a channel regularly assigned to its community,” and temporary channels would do neither.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.