LPTVs Zero In on Spectrum Auction's 'Phase Zero'

The LPTV Spectrum Rights Coalition is threatening to try and stop the FCC repack process unless the FCC addresses its issue with the so-called "Phase Zero."

The FCC has divided the repack into 10 phases. But the coalition says there is an 11th, a Phase Zero, that is unaccounted for and a threat to its members.

T-Mobile, the biggest spectrum winner, has signaled it wants to start using some of that spectrum by the end of this year.

The easiest and earliest markets to do that are where the FCC did not have to move any stations because there was already enough unused spectrum—think wide open spaces in the West, for example—to free it up without displacing existing stations. But LPTVs or translators will have to move or go off the air, given 130-days notice, in those markets if that is necessary to the wireless winner tests. Those markets have been dubbed "Phase Zero," though that is not an FCC-recognized designation.

In a letter to the FCC this week, LPTV Spectrum Rights Coalition director Michael Gravino said he had received a copy of an email from T-Mobile to one of his members signaling it wanted to start testing in Q4 2017, which could displace more than 45 stations that would go dark since that is before any displacement channels are being awarded. 

He says LPTVs are being denied their due process rights. 

An FCC spokesperson had no comment, but the FCC has pointed out in legal challenges to the status of LPTVs in the auction and repack that they are not protected and can be displaced for wireless license winners.

But Gravino had a message for the commission: "Ignore the Phase Zero problem, and force us to file to stop the entire repack until the problem is fixed."

LPTVs offer diverse programming in many instances, and translators relay full-power signals to reach hard-to-reach viewers.

“It should not be a surprise that T-Mobile is going to move swiftly to put available 600 MHz spectrum to use for consumers," the company said in a statement. "We are reaching out to broadcasters to inform them of our plans and we support efforts to find vacant channels below channel 37 for LPTV and translators.”

According to a source familiar with the T-Mobile letter, it was an effort to reach out to LPTVs and translators to help find a way to minimize disruption to LPTVs and translators while still trying to launch service by the end of the year.

Winning wireless bidders will have to give that 120-day notice, but this e-mail did not constitute such notice since those heads-up can't go out until the FCC has acutally awarded the licenses. It has just recently accepted T-Mobile's license applications, but they still must be vetted and approved.

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.