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FCC Releases Data on Spectrum-Clearing Simulations

The FCC has released some data from incentive auction simulations — based on three separate spectrum clearing targets — of how it would "optimize" its reclamation and divvying up of the 600 MHz spectrum band between wireless carriers and broadcasters in the incentive auction. Optimizing means getting the most spectrum while creating the least post-auction interference [impairment] in the repacked spectrum bands.

That data came in a public notice released late Wednesday.

The scenarios it ran were for freeing up 85 MHz of broadcast spectrum (if 40%-50% of broadcasters participated), 114 MHz (50%-60% participation), and 126 MHz (60%-70%) participation--Fox, Ion, Univision And Tribune have told the FCC it should shoot for 126 MHZ.  “Participation” doesn’t mean that is what percentage of stations need to give up spectrum. That is the percentage who participate in the auction, win or lose.

The FCC has not set any of those target scenarios as policy, but simply set up the parameters and ran the numbers. It has given the public two weeks to comment on the data.

Preston Padden, who heads the Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition (EOBC), said the simulations looked like progress.

"It shows that the commission believes 126 MHz is achievable," he said. He also pointed out that the scenarios were run assuming 10% impairment, rather than 20%, and relaxed assumptions about Canada and Mexico. "We clearly have to analyze the data," he said. But it appears to be a positive development. EOBC represents broadcasters looking to give up spectrum in the auction at the right price and under the right circumstances.

Since the FCC chose a variable band plan, which means it could collect different amounts of spectrum in different markets, some broadcasters will still be operating in spectrum shared with wireless and there will be some allowable threshold of interference. The lower the allowable interference — 10% rather than 20% — the more valuable the spectrum is.

FCC commissioner Ajit Pai was not so sanguine about the simulations, including that the FCC commissioners were not allowed to vote on it, which he had requested.

Pai was concerned that the having proposed that the initial clearing target would assume that up to 20% of spectrum nationwide could be impaired, the FCC based its simulation on another figure. He also said the fact that the simulations did not take into account any interference from Mexican TV stations makes the data misleading and "far from reality."

Then there is the process issue.

'[T]he manner in which this Public Notice is being released underscores yet again the need for FCC process reform. Both Commissioner [Michael] O’Rielly and I asked the Chairman’s Office to allow all Commissioners to have input into this document and to cast an up-or-down vote," Pai said. "Why? Because it deviates dramatically from the proposals the Commission made last December, seeks comment on an entirely new approach for reaching an initial clearing target, and presents misleading data on top of all that. Nonetheless, our requests were denied, and the Chairman’s Office directed staff to release the item over our objections. This isn’t how the FCC used to operate."

An FCC source speaking not for attribution pointed out that a number of other auction-related data points had been released from staff, rather than voted at the commission level.

He reiterated that the simulations aren't policy, and that they even show "what the warts are," as in data the FCC doesn't know — like what the impact of Mexican stations will be. "All the caveats and variable are spelled out" in the public notice, the source said.

John Eggerton
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.