If more than one-fifth of all full-power TV stations are crying "Oh, Canada," it's for good reason: That many stations are being affected by unresolved north-of-the-border spectrum coordination issues.
This is according to new figures from the National Association of Broadcasters, which is still looking for answers from the FCC about this and other repacking issues related to the government's incentive auctions and broadcast spectrum reclamation plans.
According to the NAB, the stations affected by treaties between the two countries are those within 250 miles of the border, which the association estimates to be 380 stations, or 22%. Add on the domino effect of those stations being packed more closely together with stations already occupying lower channel positions and the issue looms larger. That being especially the case for Detroit explains why Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) has been bugging the FCC for spectrum analysis info he has yet to receive.
Fuzzy pictures are exactly what broadcasters remaining in the business don't want from the commission's planned repacking of stations to make room for wireless broadband, but NAB chief technology officer Kevin Gage says the association is still looking for more guidance on the FCC's plans for achieving what is in effect a second DTV transition-and one without analog signals as a fallback.
As the FCC prepares a repacking primer workshop later this month, Gage talked with B&C about the challenges of that changeover. An edited transcript follows.
The State Department told Congress last week that treaty obligations with Canada and Mexico, combined with the incentive auction legislative mandate "that no one be disadvantaged if they continue to broadcast" creates a complicated engineering challenge. What is that challenge and how does the FCC need to resolve it to broadcasters' satisfaction?
The challenge from our standpoint is to understand what the FCC is doing. We are encouraging transparency here so that we have a better idea of how station allocations will happen depending on where that pendulum drops on the amount of spectrum that is recovered during the auction. So right now, it is about understanding what the FCC's plans are and how they are doing their reallocation tables, understanding how that works with the legislation and protecting not only broadcasters but also protecting the consumers from disruption and protecting diversity, which has been growing immensely in the broadcast industry over the last four years.
We're really excited about the potential for diversity and how that is really starting to grow and accelerate. As the broadcast industry continues to innovate with their spectrum, you are seeing much more diversity.
What specifically are the border issues that Rep. Dingell is so concerned about?
The is such a density of broadcasters both in Canada and Michigan. There really isn't any space to decrease allocation without significant disruption or vacating channels. Unless there is a significant buy-in into the auction, there's significant congestion.
On the Canadian side, they are using the same channels. And for us to be able to condense down, that means they will have to condense down as well, so that when mobile wireless gets into that area, it will affect the Canadian border.
So, Canada has to do some repacking as well?
You got it.
Similar, but to a lesser degree.
Has NAB gotten any sense that the FCC is hard at work on this issue?
To be quite honest, no. NAB brought up the issue because we felt that it was not getting the attention it needed. And I am not sure we are aware of what attention they are placing on the northern border.
So they should be paying a lot more?
It is really a condensed area. Public safety is being used in channels 14-20 and has been put in a number of markets. Detroit was so condensed they couldn't put the public safety band in. There wasn't any room. That is how dense the spectrum is in the Detroit area.
But the problem extends beyond Michigan?
It is all across the northern border. The way it works is that, if you impact Washington, and there is an impact there, if you condense down Washington, it is a daisy chain, and the next area affected would be in Oregon. So, if you start moving down stations into lower channels, many of those [would be] occupied by stations in other states, and now they are being affected, either because those channels are already being used in those other states or you have sideband interference.
This is also a State Department issue, since it deals with treaties?
Yes, but as an industry we can't get involved with that.
Does the FCC need to resolve this before it comes up with its repacking framework?
That is our expectation because we need to understand how that affects us prior to moving forward.
The FCC is holding a workshop at the end of the month on repacking. What will repacking take and what it will cost?
That is a fuzzy subject depending on how much you have to move. If you have to move from a high 40 channel position to a low 20, that will cost anywhere from a half-million to a million dollars.
The FCC has set aside up to $1.75 billion, so that sounds like it might cover the nut.
There are a lot of other costs. If you have a station using one antenna and one station or two have to move and the other doesn't, you have to turn off the whole tower if you are going up there to work. Everybody who is shared on that has to go dark or has to find another channel that is already up and running so there is no disruption of their service. It is not like the days when we had an analog channel to fall back on.
How long might they have to be dark if they can't find another channel?
That we don't know.
So you are kind of in the dark there, too?
That is why we are encouraging as much transparency as possible so that we can have a real understanding of what this impact will be on consumers, diversity and broadcasters.
It sounds like you should be in daily contact with the FCC over this?
There is constant communication with the FCC, but I am not sure we are getting all the details we need to get to fully understand the magnitude of the issue.
Is that a case of them not having those answers yet, or are they not sharing them?
I can't really answer that question.
What do you think are the prospects for over-the-air 3D?
I think it is a mixed bag at this point. We don't try to get into business models, or what products and services a broadcaster thinks is going to be something that goes into the marketplace. We are there to help develop standards and technical specifications to drive forward the innovation of new technologies, but ultimately it is up to the broadcasters to decide what works best for their businesses.
But if they want to do 3D over the air, is it doable?
It is, yes, but it is a matter of how much of your current channel you want to use and, in the next generation, how it fits. So, yes, it is being taken under consideration from a technical standpoint.
We were assuming it would also be taken into consideration from a political standpoint in the sense that having spectrum available to do 3D might be another argument for not giving up spectrum.
Ultra hi-def, 3D, multicasting-which is increasing diversity-and the new mobile channels will increase the ability for consumers to [make use of] broadcast content.
Remember, we just literally did this DTV transition, and as the broadcasters are finding new and further ways to innovate with the broadcast spectrum, they are filling up their channels. It is not that they are not using enough. To be quite honest, they need more.
How could the FCC get this wrong?
This is a major intervention, so if it is not done correctly, there could be major disruption to consumers and the broadcast industry and you will feel that on a national basis.
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