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Editorial: Keep 'Em Covered

The FCC’s draft rulemaking proposal on spectrum incentive auctions that was circulated more than a week ago is still a work in progress, with the commissioners vetting it and making edits. One thing is clear, however: FCC chairman Julius Genachowski wants to get the process moving, with the goal of voting out an order by the middle of next year and completing the auctions by 2014.

It is an ambitious timetable, given the Heinz ketchup pace of much movement in Washington. And it’s one that depends on the FCC giving broadcasters sufficient information with which to make a decision about their future, as well as the medium’s. Everyone should be thankful that there aren’t 57 varieties among the decisions.

Key among the commission’s proposals, of course, is how stations not selling out to wireless companies will be repacked and moved into smaller spectrum quarters to free up large swatches of spectrum.

One thing we were glad to learn is that in the notice of proposed rulemaking, according to sources who have seen the draft language, the “repacking” section of the 130-page opus (not including addenda) includes the FCC’s expectation that its move of stations will cause less than a 2% reduction in coverage area.

Ideally, there would be no reduction. While 98% is an A on the grading scale, looked at another way, nobody wants a 2% pay cut, or a reduction in the number of potential eyeballs for those ads supporting that still-valuable free broadcast medium.

We had feared the FCC might try to expand that tolerance zone beyond 2% in its rush to collect spectrum for wireless. That would, in our humble opinion, have been an unreasonable effort by the commission to put its thumb on the scale in favor of wireless broadband, instead of making all reasonable efforts to preserve TV station coverage areas, which Congress has told the FCC it must do.

Of course, the language is still in draft form, and edits can and certainly will be made. But unless someone tries to slip in some new wiggle room on coverage areas, the FCC has a laudable target in keeping the damage below 2%. Though with all that engineering brainpower at the FCC, maybe even tighter tolerances are achievable, given the continued importance of over-the-air broadcasting.

Anyone watching TV two weekends ago could have vouched for that importance: WUSA Washington, for example, preempted its coverage of a U.S. Open tennis semifinal to provide ongoing reports of severe thunderstorms and tornado and flash-flood warnings.

On that note, several members of the Tennessee delegation—Republicans and Democrats—last week volunteered their opinion to the commission that making sure the public still has access to free TV is as important a national priority as freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband. Now, nobody denies the wonderful world of apps, from time-sapping Angry Birds to life-saving health monitoring. But as broadcasters have pointed out, broadband and broadcasting are symbiotic.

The National Association of Broadcasters looked to put an exclamation point on its argument for the continued health of broadcasting in an FCC filing last week on the state of video competition. The NAB pointed out that over-the-air broadcasting is still the primary programming vehicle in more than 20 million households; news is on the rise; and multicast stations multiplied from 2,518 channels at the end of 2010 to an estimated 4,552 by the end of last year.

“While increasing the amount of spectrum allocated to wireless broadband fulfills an important national goal,” the legislators wrote, “it is equally important that the Federal Communications Commission protects the ability of the public to continue to receive over-the-air signals from stations that do not participate in the auction,” and actually for those that do as well, since one of the options for stations is to give up some, but not all, spectrum.

Protecting that ability means reproducing as closely as is technically feasible broadcast coverage areas. If the FCC is serious about preserving a robust one-to-many model for broadcasting, a model that could even turn out to be a lifesaver for wireless operators looking to off-load traffic at peak periods, it must demonstrate that by delivering on the draft’s goal of coverage area and interference protections.