NAB 2016: Pai Signals Rural Could Lead Repack

Complete Coverage: NAB Show 2016

FCC commissioner Ajit Pai says that it is important to look beyond the hot-button incentive auction repacking figures of the 39-month transition and $1.75 billion moving expense fund to focus on the repacking plan.

That is the moving of stations into smaller spectrum quarters after the spectrum auction, which is expected to start next month.

Pai was providing opening remarks for a National Association of Broadcasters convention panel session, "Making It Back Down the Mountain: Repacking Broadcasters Following a Successful Incentive Auction."

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According to a prepared text supplied by his office. Pai said those 39-month and $1.75 billion figures were important, but that how a successful repacking plan is achieved, and first defined, is also key. He suggested that the FCC may want to start with rural areas if it takes a geographic approach to the repack.

Quoting poet John Donne, Pai then said that "no broadcaster is an island, either." For example, he said, "one station may not be able to relocate until a second station has moved. That second station may not be able to relocate until a third station has moved. That third station could be on the same tower with two other stations. And that daisychain effect could stretch on to impact many more stations throughout a region. That’s why we can’t embrace an 'every broadcaster for itself' approach to repacking. The result won’t be an efficient or rapid repack, but rather chaos and delay. In this task, we want to apply game theory, not Game of Thrones."

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The FCC is eyeing a geographic approach to the repack, particularly given the limits on tower crews to help with the repack. Pai said there remain key issues within that geographic approach, like whether to prioritize certain regions.

Members of Congress representing rural areas have raised the issue of whether urban markets, where the FCC needs the spectrum more, would get priority treatment. Pai, who comes from Kansas and has long advocated for rural areas, echoed that, even suggesting that tackling rural areas first might make more sense. "Whatever the approach, it seems to me that the basic decision we must confront is the same. Do we get our feet wet in places where repacking will be the easiest, in smaller markets with fewer television stations and a less congested UHF band, and then work our way up to the hardest areas? Or do we pull the Band-Aid off quickly and tackle the toughest markets right away?"

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.