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Sprint Nextel and MSTV Reach Microwave Accord

In a move that should help spur broadcasters’ conversion to digital microwave technology, Sprint Nextel and technology advocacy group Association for Maximum Service Television, Inc. (MSTV) have reached agreement on covering the cost of upgrading equipment used by low-power TV stations, television translators, and temporary newsgathering operations in the 2 gigahertz (GHz) frequency band.

Sprint Nextel has been working with traditional broadcasters to convert their electronic newsgathering (ENG) operations from analog to digital microwave technology as part of a $4.8 billion spectrum deal it brokered with the FCC in February 2005. The wireless operator has agreed to spend over $500 million replacing existing microwave technology with new digital gear that operates in a smaller swath of the 2 GHz spectrum.

But Sprint Nextel had initially balked at compensating users of secondary broadcast auxiliary service (BAS) facilities to switch to digital, saying they weren’t part of its original deal with the FCC. Such users include hundreds of low-power TV stations and translators that use fixed-link microwave to relay signals across great distances in rural areas, as well as broadcasters that might sporadically operate on the ENG spectrum outside of their core market.

For example, a Baltimore station might hold a license and associated equipment to sporadically run microwave links in Washington, D.C.; such stations are granted licenses under the FCC’s so-called “720-hour rule,” meaning that they use those frequencies less than 720 hours per year.

MSTV has maintained that compensating such “secondary licensees” was an essential component of the overall 2 GHz relocation project, and petitioned the FCC to that effect. Under the new agreement, Sprint Nextel still isn’t legally obligated to compensate secondary licensees. But it will now get credit from the FCC for the equipment it buys for low-power TV, translators and 720-hour licensees against its overall tab to the FCC for the new spectrum it’s getting.

Under the terms of the agreement, Sprint Nextel will voluntarily reimburse the reasonable expenses of those secondary station licenses for costs associated with relocating eligible secondary broadcast auxiliary service (BAS) facilities from the 1990-2025 MHz band, provided that the licensees establish their eligibility and comply with a series of milestones.

“The bottom line here is that obviously each translator and TV station needs to enter into their own agreement with Sprint Nextel, but we’re trying to set some parameters to facilitate the process and get it moving,” says MSTV president David Donovan.

Low-power television and television translator licensees must submit inventories to Sprint no later than Sept. 14, then submit a “deal package” to Sprint no later than Jan. 12, 2008. Additionally, stations operating under the 720-hour rule that do not receive individual licenses from the FCC must provide documentation to Sprint no later than Oct. 30, 2007 that establishes their equipment was purchased before Nov. 22, 2004. 

As for the larger 2 GHz relocation project, Donovan concedes that things are moving more slowly than either MSTV or Sprint Nextel would like. That process was originally supposed to be completed by the end of September, a deadline that Sprint Nextel has already notified the FCC it will have trouble making. A Sprint spokesman says the company plans to file a formal request for extension with the FCC later this summer.

“Broadcasters and Sprint Nextel are working very hard to get it done,” says Donovan. “There are a small number of equipment manufacturers, and everyone’s working to capacity. It’s taking longer than any of us thought.”