CPB Board hears troubling predictions for spectrum auctions and repacking

By Dru Sefton

CPB Board members got an ominous preview Monday of the corporation’s upcoming white paper about spectrum issues in public broadcasting.

At a meeting at CPB’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Harry Hawkes of Booz & Co.’s media and technology practice told board members that if the FCC goes ahead with plans to clear 120 MHz of spectrum for use by mobile devices, 110 to 130 pubcasting stations will need to shift due to repacking even if their operators don’t participate in the auction.

“That means that one-third of the system could have to change channels,” noted Vincent Curren, CPB’s c.o.o. “This will likely be more disruptive than the digital transition. This will be a major undertaking for our industry over the next several years.”

CPB commissioned the white paper, due out early next year, to inform policy discussions within the system about spectrum issues. The FCC announced last week that spectrum auctions will be conducted in mid-2015; repacking of the remaining bandwidth is expected to occur soon after. CPB SVP Michael Levy said the corporation will soon use the Booz data to compose a letter to “communicate our concerns and sense of opportunity” to new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, along with members of Congress, national pubcasting partners and stations.

Those concerns include reimbursements to pubcasters. While Congress has set aside $1.75 billion of auction proceeds to repay all broadcasters for costs associated with the disruption, translators are not covered, Hawkes said. He estimated that 200 to 250 low-power pubcasting translators for rural areas may need to move to new channels at an estimated systemwide cost of $3 million to $4 million.

Pubcasters in several states are “highly reliant” on translators, Hawkes said, such as Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado and North Carolina.

Beyond the translator issue, pubcasters continue to struggle with decisions regarding spectrum, Hawkes said. So far, Booz representatives have interviewed more than 40 station executives, and nearly 90 stations participated in a dynamic-inquiry webinar on the topic.

Booz is discovering that pubTV executives “vary in their understanding” of spectrum auctions, Hawkes said. Many are concerned because there is “no consistent way of gauging whether an auction will occur in their market,” which depends on where wireless companies want spectrum, he said.

While some pubTV stations are open to participating in the spectrum auction, Hawkes said, “most believe that continuing to offer multicast channels and over-the-air content is critical” to the mission of public broadcasting.

Some pubcasters are considering an option offered by the FCC option to shift their signals to VHF; others are concerned about interference and broadcast quality in that lower band, Hawkes said. Stations are also curious about the option of channel sharing, for which they would sell part of their spectrum and partner with nearby broadcasters to share signals.

The board presentation contained preliminary findings of the Booz research, Levy said. A full white paper will be issued in spring 2014.

Questions, comments, tips? sefton@current.org
Correction and clarification: An earlier version of this story overstated the estimated cost of moving translators to new channels. It also said “110 to 130 pubcasters” will need to shift channels. This has been revised to clarify that 110 to 130 stations will need to be shifted.
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