Sorting Out the Spectrum Stakeholders

RELATED: NAB's Five Spectrum Complications to Watch
Nobody has ever claimed the broadcast spectrum incentive auctions are “as simple as that.” Sometimes it appears to be a three-horse race among broadcasters, wireless companies and the FCC, with the issues boiling down to buying, selling and accommodating those who decide not to participate. But ‘broadcasters’ includes noncommercial and religious stations with their own issues, and a Rubik’s Cube of variables and moves involving a host of stakeholders.

The FCC concedes the auction is a complicated, first-of-its-kind mechanism with many moving parts—or in the case of some stakeholders, “not wanting to move” parts—and a multitude of issues. Getting it right will mean accommodating, or potentially angering, a panoply of players.

It’s even a misnomer to call it “an auction,” since it’s actually two—one to reclaim broadcast spectrum, the other to auction it. Together, they will determine how much freed-up spectrum wireless carriers will be able to bid on to help feed their hunger for faster service in the name of multiplying apps, and where TV stations will wind up in what is, in essence, a second DTV transition. That’s the simple explanation.

There is complexity at all angles; it’s a headscratcher when viewed from 30,000 feet. NAB spectrum guru Rick Kaplan has outlined the points as he sees them for B&C—and complications abound in the drilled-down version as well.

The FCC has said it wants to keep that complexity under the hood to make it as easy as possible for broadcasters to give up spectrum. Meanwhile, the commission continues to vet comments and reply comments on the auction (reply comments are due next month).

Since some of this stuff you just can’t make up, B&C is releasing the ol’ hood latch to look at the complexities and constituencies the FCC will need to balance—from Broadway producers fearing mucked-up microphones, to astronomers looking for the origins of the universe, to noncoms arguing (when they aren’t pillorying the FCC) that the commission will need to do something about state laws that could prevent them from participating in the auction—in order to make it all run smoothly.

The Roar of the Greasepaint

Broadway theater producers are loudly warning the FCC that repacking the broadcast TV band to free up spectrum could affect the sound quality on the Great White Way—an issue that crops up wherever wireless microphones are at work.

In its filing to the commission, the Broadway League points out that as the number of channels available for broadcasting is reduced, the number of available channels for wireless mics would also decline, since those mics currently use the same broadcast spectrum that is being scrunched and repurposed.

The FCC is always talking up the economic impact of regulations; part of its pitch for the auctions is that they will be a boost to the economy and jobs. The Broadway League wants to make sure that is the case for its members.

More than 30 million people annually attend Broadway shows—a $10 billion industry—with road shows to 200 cities accounting for $3 billion more. Not to mention (the league’s filing did, actually) the 10,000 people employed directly and another 80,000 indirectly in the industry.

Given that these are low-power microphones being discussed, the producers argue that they should be allowed to use the guard bands and other so-called TV “white spaces” after the transition. But if the FCC were to require them to use spectrum-sensing equipment, as is a white spaces requirement, designing small cognitive mics that could fit in costumes would be an “amazing feat,” attorneys for the Broadway League told the FCC.

Don’t Block That Mic

The National Football League is also defending its production trucks against the advance of the spectrum juggernaut. The league would prefer the FCC—“after further review,” as the referees say on Sundays—continue to reserve two channels for wireless mics rather than open them up to other unlicensed uses, as the commission proposes. “Wireless microphones allow coaches, players, referees and other game and team officials to communicate efficiently before, during and after a game and thus help provide uninterrupted entertainment to millions of fans worldwide,” says the NFL.

The league did not mention that without wireless mics, viewers might miss some of that entertaining cursing occasionally picked up by the sensitive microphones.

Boeing, Boeing, Gone?

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing says that repacking after the incentive auctions must not reduce the amount of unlicensed spectrum available in the TV white spaces. If it does, the company suggests, it could have issues of control over its manufacture of airplanes, defense, security and space systems.

The aircraft giant has enough manufacturing issues already: Its troubled 787 Dreamliner has been grounded due to battery problems.

“Boeing’s substantial design, manufacturing, integration and testing operations depend on the efficiency and flexibility of unlicensed spectrum both for communications and, increasingly, for control of automated equipment used in manufacturing,” the company says.

A Prescription for Problems

Wireless Medical Telemetry Services—which transmits vital data on patient health—currently uses UHF TV channel 37 of the broadcast band. Philips Healthcare favors the FCC’s proposal to preserve that channel for telemetry, as well as astronomy (see “ET: Text Home,”). But Philips says the FCC is wrong to suggest that if it repacks TV stations on channels immediately adjacent to 37, it will not cause interference, and suggests there could be unhealthy consequences.

Some commenters to the FCC have suggested not moving WMTS signals to another channel. And Philips adds that its current spectrum is best suited for important applications such as fetal monitoring, which must be done through water and needs the frequency characteristics of its current channel to be viable. Broadcasters have not recommended moving telemetry off the channel, in part given the expense involved.

ET: Text Home

From discovering new movements of galaxies to allowing its equipment to be used to seek out extraterrestrial life, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va., and similar radio telescopes around the world, search for answers to the big cosmic questions of the beginnings and endings of the universe and the planet. The latter will preferably not be via an asteroid like the one that, in cosmic terms, just missed the Earth last week—which is the kind of thing the observatories discover.

But for those telescopes to continue to operate optimally in the U.S., NRAO says, the FCC should not pack TV stations in immediate adjacent channels to its current channel 37 home (which it shares with medical telemetry). The FCC, in its notice of proposed rulemaking, said that there did not need to be a guard band between the channel and TV stations since they currently operate on adjacent channels.

But NRAO says the issue is more complicated than that, and asks that if the FCC does increase the number of channels adjacent to the radio astronomy service (RAS) band, that it try to avoid doing so in proximity to RAS sites, adding another potential twist to the big bang-like complexity of an auction with many moving parts.

The folks at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington agreed. NAS president Ralph Cicerone told the FCC that the important work of radio astronomy can’t be done without access to interference-free spectrum and urges the commission to protect that band.

Low-Power Non Grata

The FCC has been getting an earful from religious broadcasters, who say their uniquely local ministries, which use low-power TV stations, are “threatened” by the auctions. “An important number of NRB member television stations are low-power, and provide valuable religious content to their communities which will not be duplicated in their viewing markets if the spectrum auction or repacking results in their being taken off the air,” the National Religious Broadcasters say in their filing. (Low-power stations do not fall under the “do no harm” protections of the incentive auction legislation.)

The FCC anticipates that some low-power stations may have to go off the air to make room for full-power stations in the repacking, NRB points out. And that, they vociferously argue, would run against another part of the auction statute. While the auction does not apply to lowpowers, the statute also says that nothing in the law can be construed to alter the spectrum rights of low-powers. Though those stations’ rights are already subservient to full-power and Class A stations, the NRB argues that forcing them off the air would clearly alter those rights.

“The FCC’s spectrum proceeding has so far given low-power television a chilly reception,” says Craig Parshall, NRB senior VP and general counsel. “However, if the Commission takes the position that the ‘no alter’ mandate from Congress actually means ‘no rights’ for low-power, it will orchestrate an ice age kind of extinction for many LPTV stations.”

Public Problems

The Miami-Dade County school board, which is the licensee of noncommercial WLRN-TV, has ripped into the commission with both barrels. In a lengthy filing, it attempts to school the FCC on the idea that there is no public interest rationale for even holding an auction, and that the FCC’s NPRM is an unconstitutional burden on free speech. But Florida school boards are well represented in the docket, and their issues extend beyond a general animus toward the process.

The Broward County, Fla., school board points out that noncommercial educational stations such as theirs would not be able to participate in the auction—the board is licensee of WBEC-TV—because of a state law that limits how that spectrum can change hands. The Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) is also concerned about local restrictions on auction of noncom spectrum, given that some states require a public auction and the FCC is keeping bidder identities confidential, which AITS supports.

That doesn’t mean the Broward board doesn’t have plenty of its own general hostility for the process. It calls the auction a “pillaging of the television spectrum band and the signaling of a reduced commitment to local NCE television.”


The FCC has said it wants to be done with the auction by the end of 2014. Given speed of regulation, the need to vet input and the complications listed above, getting all the moving pieces aligned will be a mighty tall order on that timetable.

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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.