Wheeler: I’ll Seek More Money If $1.75B Spectrum Auction Fund Insufficient

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told a House Appropriations Committee panel Tuesday that if the $1.75 billion is not sufficient to pay for the post-spectrum auction TV station repack, he would lead the parade back to Congress to ask for more.

Wheeler, asked whether that would be sufficient, said the FCC would know better in a few months, but he could not predict that now.

He was also asked whether the 39-month timeline/deadline for broadcasters' move to new channels was sufficient. Wheeler said that if the committee cuts the money the FCC has asked for to administer the auction, it will make it tougher.

But he said he does not know how many stations will be moving, though he hopes it will be over 1,000.

He said there have been numerous studies, some saying that was plenty of time—he said the National Association of Broadcasters had first said 30 months, and lately more like 10 years. But he said if there is a flood of stations moving, it would be "irresponsible" not to deal with the timing issue.

He also pointed out that there was a waiver process for the deadline on a case-by-case basis.

"We appreciate Congress’s continued interest in the repacking challenge, which will be the most complex transition the FCC has ever overseen," said National Assocaition of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton following the hearing. "It’s disappointing and disingenuous for Chairman Wheeler to suggest that NAB’s repacking advocacy supports the FCC’s arbitrary 39-month deadline. As he well knows, when the FCC initially pushed to repack the country in 18 months, NAB responded in 2013 that it would take at least 30 months to repack the then-expected 400 or so broadcasters. A year and a half later, the FCC first revealed that it might repack as many as 1,300 TV stations. Given the FCC’s decision not to minimize the scope of repacking, the transition will likely require significantly more time."

Numerous senators asked about TV stations in their respective states and how the money and timeline and limited number of tower crews would affect them.

Wheeler said the FCC would work with stations on potential interference issues, but also said wireless companies need to get access to the spectrum being cleared.

Wheeler said he was shocked to find out the number of antenna erectors, which is why the FCC is considering a regional approach to the repack. He said the FCC does not know whether it will be 1,000 or 500 stations that will be repacked.

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.