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NAB: Repack Time, Money Insufficient

A broadcaster witness representing the National Association of Broadcasters told a Senate panel Thursday that broadcasters still don't think the 39-month timetable for repacking TV stations after the incentive auction and the $1.75 billion relocation fund will be sufficient.

That came at a spectrum hearing in the Senate Communications Subcommittee, where numerous senators praised the medium and urged that neither it nor the viewers that depended on broadcasting be adversely affected in the repack.

Pat LaPlatney, president or Raycom Media, who has testifying on behalf of NAB, said 22 of his stations alone would have to move, including a couple that would require putting new antennas on existing towers weighing thousands of pounds more than the previous antenna.

He said broadcasters would work collaboratively and make the transition as quickly and efficiently as possible but that it was a complicated process.

Ranking member Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said he was concerned that viewers could lose access to local news during the transition and asked if there was not a way to balance the desire for faster broadband with the need to protect access to local news.

Schatz got the commitment from Scott Bergmann, VP of regulatory affairs for CTIA, that he would work collaboratively with Congress and broadcasters to insure a smooth transition, but Bergman included the caveat that 39 months was an eternity to wait for the $20 billion worth of broadcast spectrum bought in the auction and said he thought the FCC could hold to that timetable.

While saying the wireless industry would work cooperatively, Bergman said it was important to get timely access so his industry could invest, create jobs and build out the spectrum.

New committee member Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said she had concerns about radio stations that could be affected by the repack. LaPlatney said he shared that concern given that some radio stations were co-located on TV towers and would have to be powered down for hours or even days.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said spectrum matters but so does community broadcasting. He said he wanted to make sure "good things happen" with the repack.

LaPlatney said he would appreciate the committee's continued oversight. He reiterated his concerns with the time and money for repacking what he estimated would be 1,000-1,100 stations but said if broadcasters could do it in 39 months, they would do everything they could to get it done.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.)—a cousin of NAB president and former Sen. Gordon Smith—added that broadcasting was the first wireless technology and is "still relevant today."

The focus of LaPlatney's testimony was the new ATSC 3.0 next gen broadcasting standard, which also got shout-outs from various senators from both parties.

Subcommittee chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) appeared particularly impressed with the standard's ability to "wake up" TVs and smart devices to deliver enhanced emergency alerts. Klobuchar's comment was "Wow!"

Ranking member Schatz did say he was not convinced that ATSC 3.0 was a game-changer in the way that the transition from analog to digital was and asked LaPlatney to try and convince him. In addition to the alerts, which LaPlatney said were a game changer, he cited the ability to deliver more targeted advertising to keep up with the Google's and Facebooks or at least eat into their market shares.

He said that was definitely a game changer, as was having a more "Hulu-like" experience with drop-down menus, access to sports scores, and the ability to search for more info on a certain actor.

LaPlatney also pointed out that broadcasters could deliver video to smart phones and tablets that would not count against their data caps, which he said was helpful given that he had four boys in the house.  “If somebody wants to watch movies over 3.0 it’s not going to hit their data cap,” he said.

Asked Sen. Wicker how the government could help 3.0 come to fruition, LaPlatney said by continuing congressional oversight and by the FCC approving the rollout by fall. He praised the FCC's 3-0 vote to propose the voluntary rollout.