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Editorial: The Days Dwindle Down

The incentive auction has gotten a little more real in the past few weeks as the FCC approved an auction framework, including bidding rules, and announced it had struck at least handshake deals with Mexico and Canada on coordinating the countries’ respective spectrum repacks.

That is the good news, at least in terms of FCC process. The not-so-good news is that broadcasters are starting to feel more like second-class citizens in the rush to find spectrum for unlicensed devices in the broadcast band.

The FCC is planning to repack some TV stations in the wireless band’s duplex gap in a handful of markets to insure it can clear a baseline bounty of spectrum for wireless companies. Not surprisingly, that is not making either broadcasters or some wireless carriers particularly happy given the potential interference to both.

Then there is the FCC’s proposal to reserve the last vacant channel in broadcast markets for unlicensed, meaning that if there is an empty seat in the game of repack musical chairs, low-power TV stations (LPTVs) and translators will have to watch as it is given to unlicensed users.

LPTVs and translators were not protected in the repack, but as House Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told an audience at a recent LPTV conference, Congress did not mean for licensed services to be trumped by unlicensed. And Walden should know: He was a key author of the legislation that created the auction.

After the divisive vote on the duplex gap and bidding procedures—both Republicans on the subcommittee voted against it—the National Association of Broadcasters did some storm cloudlike rumbling about the prospects for a smooth glide path to auction launch date next March 29, calling it a “major setback for stakeholders eager for a successful incentive auction.” Then the NAB spelled out the problems in no uncertain terms.

“[T]he FCC undercuts the notion of a voluntary auction; low-balls payments to TV stations interested in exiting the business; establishes a haphazard variable band plan destined for decades of interference disputes; guarantees maximum loss of LPTV and translator service for millions of Americans in exchange for a handout of free spectrum with no public interest obligations to multibillion dollar companies; and jeopardizes lifeline news coverage of local TV stations in some of America’s largest cities,” the NAB said, the last comment referring to wireless mics that will also have to share the duplex gap.

Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln? The NAB said it was still committed to crafting a successful auction for all stakeholders. We hope the FCC is not simply paying lip service to that goal while resting an elbow on the scale for unlicensed wireless.