Wheeler: FCC Will Try to Preserve LPTV Voices

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said Tuesday (July 28) that low power TV is an important voice that the FCC will work to preserve after the incentive auction, even though Congress did not protect them in its auction legislation.

That came in the chairman's testimony at an oversight hearing in the House Communications Subcommittee.

He said that help for LPTVs and translators—low-power retransmitters of high-powered stations to hard-to-reach areas—would take three forms: First, the FCC will help them find channels if they get displaced, he said. Second, the FCC is opening a rulemaking on letting them share channels if they are displaced, as full-power stations voluntarily giving up their spectrum are allowed to do. Third, they won't have to vacate their channels until wireless companies are ready to turn on their service—which will likely be several years after the 2016 auction.

All those, he said, will help mitigate the impact.

Wheeler did not pledge to give LPTVs priority over unlicensed devices in the TV band if only a single channel remains after the repack, but he did say the "vacant channel" priority to unlicensed would only apply to a handful of markets, and even then would likely affect few if any LPTVs, though he appeared to be talking about a different vacant channel proposal (see below).

Also testifying at the hearing was senior Republican commissioner Ajit Pai, who said he thought LPTVs should get priority over unlicensed devices in the TV band, rather than reserving the last channel for unlicensed.

Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) opened his questioning of Wheeler and Pai by asking how the FCC would minimize disruption to LPTV and translators in the post incentive auction TV station repack. Wheeler said he had an interest in insuring their "voice continues."

Walden also had issues with the vacant channel proposal. Wheeler insisted it would have limited impact.

An FCC official clarified to B&C after the hearing that Wheeler, when he was talking about the vacant channel issue was discussing proposals submitted to the FCC about adding a second vacant channel in the handful of markets that may have a broadcaster placed in the duplex gap, which the FCC has not teed up for comment, rather than the vacant channel proposal to give unlicensed the vacant last channel in a market, which the FCC has proposed. . 

As to the general issue of helping LPTVs, Wheeler reminded the congressman that it was Congress—Walden helped write the auction legislation—that had given LPTVs no priority in the auction while at the same time was encouraging freeing up more spectrum for unlicensed.

But Walden, a former broadcaster who had experience with radio translators—said that the legislation did not give priority to unlicensed, either. He said he was concerned that translators would go dark in favor of unlicensed devices and suggested the FCC had a public interest obligation to try and prevent that.

Wheeler said the FCC was "breaking our tails" to balance competing interests, a point he made about the auction in general. 

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.