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FCC Freezes Channel Switches

The FCC has issued a freeze on TV station requests to switch digital channel assignments.

The move comes as the commission starts to contemplate how to reallocate -- via incentive auction -- 120 MHz of spectrum from the broadcast band to wireless broadband, and move the remaining broadcasters to make room for that wireless service.

It originally froze channel changes back in 2004 as it set up the first DTV table of channel allotments, then lifted that freeze in 2008. Now it faces another channel-shifting to free up spectrum.

"To permit the Commission to evaluate its reallocation and repacking proposals and their impact on the Post-Transition Table of DTV Allotments, it is appropriate to freeze the acceptance of additional rulemaking petitions to change channels at this time," the Media Bureau said in a public notice dated May 31.

The FCC is seeking incentive auction authority to compensate broadcasters for moving off spectrum, but will also need to move some of the broadcasters that remain behind in order to free up 20 MHz blocks of spectrum for wireless. At a hearing on spectrum auctions in the House Communications Subcommittee Wednesday, Republican and Democrat alike said there was a spectrum crunch, that more spectrum would need to be found, and that they were confident -- probably more so than some broadcasters -- that there was a way to structure an auction to benefit both broadband and broadcasting.

The FCC last year began the spectrum reclamation process with a rulemaking proposal on channel sharing, reclassifying the broadcast band for shared use by wireless providers, and helping improve VHF DTV reception. In a turn-about from the analog world, it is the UHF, not VHF band, that is prime DTV real estate, particularly in urban areas where UHF's ability to penetrate walls comes in handy. In fact a number of those station channel switches were by broadcasters moving from a post-transition VHF allocation to a UHF channel.

The bureau also said that since it had been allowing stations to apply to switch from their post-DTV transition allotments since May 30, 2008--when the previous shift freeze was lifted--"stations interested in changing channels have had sufficient time to evaluate engineering options and submit rulemaking petitions."

The bureau will continue to process requests already on file. It has already processed about 100 channel change requests from broadcasters since 2008.