FCC Adopts Phased TV Station Repack Plan

As the FCC's spectrum auction winds down, the Media Bureau was busy Friday with what comes next—establishing the outlines of the phased TV station relocation transition and in the process denying some broadcaster requests for changes and granting others.

An FCC source said one of the goals was to provide more flexibility for broadcasters.

The Media Bureau adopted a methodology for establishing construction deadlines for TV stations transitioning to new channels within its phased transition plan. Stations will transition in 10 phases. The plan was issued in September.

An FCC official said beyond the tweaks, it essentially adopted the item as proposed last fall.

The goal is to allow TV stations, manufacturers and vendors to coordinate the "daisy chain" of TV station moves, hundreds if not a thousand, following the end of the auction, which is currently wrapping up.

The FCC decided not to adopt the suggestion of the National Association of Broadcasters not to assign stations to a phase until they had completed structural or engineering studies or to treat them as preliminary phase assignments to be evaluated later. "We find that NAB’s suggested approach could negatively affect the incentive for broadcasters to begin preparing for the transition in earnest," the bureau said.

But the bureau said it understood that "unforeseen circumstances" could arise and would work with stations on an individual basis.

NAB did not want stations locked into time frames that might not be achievable through no fault of their own—unavailability of tower crews or equipment, for example.

Stations will be allowed to use temporary channels during the transition but will not be required by the FCC to do so.

"Kudos to the FCC for allowing temporary channel sharing," said Preston Padden, former executive director of Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters. "The goal of expediting the transition cries out for relief from the broadcaster gag order and for the FCC to make their repacking tools available to any interested party."

The bureau says it will allow up to 2% interference between stations during the transition, more than broadcasters wanted.

"We disagree with the Joint Broadcast Commenters that the two percent temporary interference proposal is at odds with the Spectrum Act’s directive to make 'all reasonable efforts' to preserve television stations’ coverage areas and population served," the FCC said. "Nothing in the Spectrum Act limits the Bureau’s authority to permit temporary pairwise interference of up to two percent in order to facilitate the transition to post-auction channels."

NAB had also asked the FCC cap "the aggregate amount of interference any station may have to accept." The FCC declined to do so, saying it would provide little benefit and impose "significant costs." But it did the next best thing. NAB had asked, in the alternative, that if a station was going to have more than 5% interference in the phase to which it was assigned, the FCC would make "appropriate adjustments." The FCC says in such cases it will at least try to find an alternative phase to put it in. 

To minimize disruption, all stations in a DMA will be assigned to one of two phases. NAB had argued for having all stations in a DMA assigned to the same phase but conceded that was unlikely to be possible.

The bureau also says it will try to take weather into account—say a station whose phase is in the winter, when tower work can be icy and dicey. Some commenters on the original proposal wanted the FCC to plug it in as an input when calculating phases and when they should be completed. The FCC said that was tough, but it would look at it as an output and adjust when possible.

The bureau affirmed that it will entertain requests to temporarily jointly use channels as a way to speed the transition.

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.