Skip to main content

Unpacking the Repack

The FCC has pushed back the window for TV stations to apply for the incentive auction until Jan. 12, but still says that proceedings will begin March 29.

For many broadcasters, that will be the beginning of a years-long process of the FCC reconfiguring the broadcast band as the commission fits them into smaller spectrum space.

Many stations will have to move, get new equipment and make sure their viewers know where to find them. It will be tantamount to a second digital transition.

B&C spoke with a number of broadcast players, including on the station and association sides, to come up with the following list of the things broadcasters need to be thinking about as they decide whether and how to participate in the auction, and what they will need to be considering—and worrying about—in the forced march toward their new future.

Choice Words.

Broadcasters may have a choice of whether to participate in the much-touted voluntary auction, but the repack is involuntary.

What’s the Plan, Stan?

There needs to be a plan to manage the repack, or that lengthy process could take twice as long as the 39 months the FCC has allotted, said one broadcaster. He suggests a regional plan might work and that, otherwise, disparate groups will be battling to get the work needed to make the transition done with limited resources. A coordinated plan is crucial, he says.

Tech Tock.

Once the auction is completed, the clock really starts ticking on the move. Tower crews and equipment, and the engineering consultants that will be needed to help, could be in short supply, potentially creating long lead times to order that equipment as TV stations either move to new channels, or have to share with other stations post-auction.

Read the Fine Print.

After the auction is completed, the FCC will put out a reimbursement form for stations to apply for money to pay for their move. Read it carefully and contact the FCC’s Media Bureau with any questions.

Mark Your Calendars.

Carriers will not bid unless there is a generally applicable end-date to access the spectrum, subject to exceptions for stations with bona fide delays.

The end of the auction, which will likely come in the third or even fourth quarter of 2016, will be marked by a public notice from the FCC on TV station channel reassignments—for those participating in the auction and moving and those not participating who will be moved because of the auction. Broadcasters will have three months to apply for a construction permit to head to a new channel, and three months to submit the reimbursement form to the FCC for the money to move. They will get their money up front, rather than having to invoice it afterwards.

Now Hear This.

While the FCC has set a 39-month deadline for the repack (with an additional six months to build out new facilities if necessary), stations may not get that much time. Each station will get its own construction deadline, just no later than 39 months.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has told Congress he will not force stations off the air if 39 months proves not enough time, and the other commissioners have agreed, though none of those commissioners may still be in their chairs in three or four years. The chairman also said that the FCC would have to balance flexibility with that deadline with the wireless carriers’ need for certainty about accessing the spectrum.

Get Ahead Of the Curve.

There are things broadcasters can do before they get their new channel assignments, including surveying existing equipment to see what range of channels it can accommodate, or map their tower—if they don’t already have detailed documentation—to speed any structural analysis related to new channels.

No Time to Panic.

“The FCC has agreed to optimize channel assignments to minimize repacking including difficult/extensive repacks,” said one exec tracking the process with an eye toward helping stations participate. “Stations facing minimal repack changes will be able to transition quickly.”

Congress put $1.75 billion into the reimbursement fund for repacking costs. The FCC says that should be enough. But if it is not, there is no other way to cover the costs short of the FCC going back to Congress and asking for more money. If Congress doesn’t fork it over, or in the interim if the money runs out, stations will have to bear the costs. And that would be the time to panic.

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.