Technical hurdles, unknown costs loom in spectrum repacking

By Scott Fybush

As the FCC prepares to reshuffle the layout of the nation’s television spectrum for the repacking process, public broadcasters are girding for some difficult choices as they consider how to navigate a complex and potentially expensive transition.

Staff within the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology also are grappling with the immense technical challenges of the spectrum auctions and repacking processes, which involve clearing out a significant chunk of the UHF spectrum now assigned to broadcast TV while protecting the coverage areas of licensees who choose not to auction their frequencies.

“The basic point of repacking is this: to fill in some of the Swiss-cheese holes of vacant channels so there is contiguous spectrum at the top of the UHF band,” said Robert Weller, technical analysis branch chief at the OET, during an Aug. 22 FCC webinar for TV engineers and consultants.

Making that happen requires plenty of computing horsepower: To simplify an exceedingly complex process, the FCC is running computer studies to determine how every TV station in the country can interact with every other station in its own or closely adjacent markets. During the webinar, Weller and other OET staff explained the TVStudy software that’s generating data needed to manage the processes.

“Our statutory responsibility is to preserve station coverage as defined in OET Bulletin 69,” Weller said. “OET 69 is not a computer program itself; it’s a description of one.” A new version of the program was released on the FCC website in February, allowing individual stations and engineering consultants to conduct their own analyses to determine how their stations might be affected by repacking, and to advise FCC engineers as the process moves forward.

Condensing the TV spectrum

Congress set the basic outlines for spectrum repackaging in 2012 when it passed legislation establishing a 10-year time frame for auctions. The law allowed willing stations to voluntarily give up their spectrum and potentially reap financial benefits from the auctions. Those who volunteer could remain on the air by negotiating channel-sharing agreements with other broadcasters. Congress set aside $1.75 billion to help broadcasters and other entities cover the costs of the transition and directed the proceeds to the U.S. Treasury.

It also authorized the FCC to remove 120 MHz, or 20 channels, from TV broadcasting, reducing the UHF spectrum to 174 MHz, or as few as 22 remaining channels. At the same time, it set technical standards to ensure that broadcasters who aren’t willing to give up their spectrum can retain substantially all of their current coverage areas.

Once enough spectrum is cleared, all of the remaining stations will be condensed into the remaining 174 MHz of UHF spectrum.

As a point of comparison, TV broadcasters have occupied 294 MHz of UHF spectrum since completion of the DTV transition, a reduction of 108 MHz, or 18 channels (Channels 52–69) that had been allocated for analog television broadcasts.

The legislative directive requiring the FCC to keep stations’ existing coverage areas adds a layer of complication to the repacking process that the FCC is now working on, Weller said during the webinar.

“Actual TV station coverage is not neatly bounded by an enclosed shape,” he said.  “Because of terrain, there are often islands of service separated by areas of no service.”

The computer analysis will establish the framework for planning the DTV incentive auction because it will determine how many stations need to participate, said Brett Tarnutzer, auction program manager and assistant chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau.

OET is providing tools to help individual stations determine what the repacking process may hold in store for them. The “constraint files” accessible on the FCC’s repacking website allow engineers and others with technical expertise to review the FCC’s station-by-station predictions of whether specific stations can coexist after repacking, Tarnutzer said.

In the commercial TV world, the FCC expects broadcast owners whose stations aren’t generating big ad revenues to enter the reverse incentive auction, closing down their TV broadcasting operations for larger payouts than the station’s spectrum might bring at auction. But for pubcasters, whose core mission is supplying broadcast service, the auction process is likely to be less attractive.

Only a single pubcasting licensee has publicly revealed its intention to auction its spectrum — San Mateo Community College in California, operator of KCSM-TV. The college pulled back its plan to sell the station as a broadcast licensee in November 2012 and later signed a deal with commercial operator LocusPoint Networks to auction KCSM’s spectrum. Under the contract, signed in May, LocusPoint will subsidize the pubTV station’s operations for up to four years and split proceeds from the spectrum auction with the college.

Since the majority of public TV licensees intend to continue broadcasting, the guarantee of protected coverage may still end up costing a lot of money and disrupt their broadcasting operations and services.

The FCC promises it won’t force stations to move from the preferred UHF band to VHF, though it will offer UHF stations incentive payouts if they volunteer to be moved to VHF. Either way, the repacking process is expected to shift hundreds of stations to new channel positions. A mandatory change to a different channel, even if a station remains on its existing UHF or VHF band, can cost more than $1 million dollars if it involves replacing a station’s existing transmitter, mask filter and antenna.

Without the now-defunct Public Facilities Telecommunications Program that augmented CPB funding for much of the expense of the 2009 DTV transition, pubcasters will have to hope that their share of the $1.75 billion set aside for all TV stations as part of the 2012 repacking legislation will cover the costs of the next transition.

The FCC is developing guidelines for awarding those funds as it works on the next steps in the repacking process. It has asked broadcasters and others for comments to help the FCC determine how to manage the two sets of auctions that will bookend repacking: first, the reverse incentive auction in which licensees compete to see who’ll give up their broadcast spectrum for the least amount of money; and then the forward auction in which wireless providers bid for the spectrum that’s released.

The entire process is expected to take at least three years once the auctions begin, and it’s probable some stations may find themselves temporarily silenced while their antennas and transmitters are being replaced, new equipment is purchased and installed, and channel assignments are juggled during the repacking.

How does your station expect to be affected by repacking? Are you considering surrendering spectrum at auction, and if not, how do you expect to pay for any channel changes your station(s) may have to make? Contact news@current.org or scott@fybush.com for a follow-up story tracking how pubcasters are preparing for the repacking process.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated and clarified. It previously overstated the scope of the original legislation and mischaracterized how broadcasters can retain a portion of their spectrum.

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