In spectrum auction, FCC should protect public TV’s coverage

Commentary by John Schwartz

The FCC recently released the entire text of its Report and Order detailing rules for the upcoming broadcast spectrum auctions, making it clear that it intends to make no effort to preserve public TV signal coverage.

The 484-page report, “Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions,” rejects the proposal supported by CPB and other leading broadcast organizations to preserve at least one station per geographic market.

Schwartz

Schwartz

If you dive into this ponderous document, I recommend paragraph 367 and footnote 1090 (unfortunately, not a typo — there really are over 1,000 footnotes). In paragraph 367, the FCC states that it declines to “restrict acceptance of such bids based on the potential loss of television service or specific programming.”

The FCC further states that any such restrictions “could reduce the amount of spectrum available” to carry out the auction and undermine the “goal of allowing market forces to determine the highest and best use of spectrum.” The long and short of it is that if the entities that hold America’s 289 UHF public TV licenses decide to sell their underlying spectrum in the forthcoming “incentive” auction, that spectrum will be lost to noncommercial television forever.

It need not be so. Just as the FCC originally laid out the blueprint for the national development of public television in 1952, it can establish rules to preserve the essential design of public television following the sale of spectrum by existing licensees. We are talking about public broadcasting, and one of its bedrock concepts is that it operates outside of “market forces.”

Origins of public TV

Before there was a community of public TV stations — many years before the 1967 passage of the Public Broadcasting Act (and, thereafter, the birth of CPB and PBS) — the FCC established the television Table of Assignments.

When the FCC prepared to launch broadcast television on a wide basis, it placed in its rules a listing, organized by city and state, of locations where it would allow TV stations to operate on specific frequencies. This table still exists. Decades later, when the FCC mandated the shift to digital TV and rearranged many frequency assignments, it created a parallel digital listing.

Crucially for public television, the FCC reserved a substantial portion of those channels listed in the Table of Assignments for noncommercial use. The rules denote such reserved channels by placing an asterisk next to the channel number.

Commercial TV stations were built much more quickly than public TV stations. During the 1950s, as TV channels filled up quickly, it was a struggle to activate and maintain educational stations. But the Table of Assignments kept still-vacant noncommercial slots available. Congress gave educational TV (as it was then called) a shot in the arm when it started to provide money for facilities in 1962. The Public Broadcasting Act — the genesis of modern public TV and radio — followed five years later.

I encourage you to flip through the Table of Assignments, because it is the blueprint for universal public television coverage that Americans enjoy today. The FCC placed reserved channels across the United States, from small towns to big cities. In my home state of Colorado, the table lists two reserved channels in Denver, plus one in the Denver suburbs. All of these frequencies now provide public TV service to the community. There are also assignments (though many never occupied) in little-known mountain and plains communities like Alamosa, Craig, Lamar and Trinidad.

The Table of Assignments provided the blueprint for public television coverage to expand across the nation and, over many decades, achieve near universal coverage.

The immolation of a blueprint

Though the asterisks that mark noncommercial TV channels still appear in the Table of Assignments, these important symbols are at risk of becoming meaningless in the FCC’s spectrum auction proceeding. Though FCC regulations barring noncommercial licensees from selling their stations to for-profit broadcasters are still in effect, the Commission has gutted that essential protection with its recent refusal to safeguard public broadcasting spectrum. FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s appeal for public TV licensees to participate in the auction further undermines the universal availability of pubcasting signals.

If all existing licensees are able to divest of their spectrum via the incentive auction, there will be no guiding framework or coherent control over the contraction of public TV service that would follow. It is similar to providing financial incentives to each family in an apartment building to allow its condo to be demolished. The structural integrity of the building would be lost.

Local and national public TV institutions across the country — not to mention generations of viewers — have an interest in determining how much of this edifice will stand. But, apart from those public TV licensees that are being offered cash for their channels, no one is empowered to do more than observe and remark on the spectrum auction process. The sole decision-makers are the governing boards of the individual private and governmental entities whose names are printed on the license certificates.

To protect public TV’s spectrum blueprint and the universal coverage that it provides, the commission should impose some order on its pending spectrum auction proceeding. A logical first step would be to require licensees that provide the sole source of local public TV programming to their communities to retain enough spectrum to continue service, as CPB and others have asked the Commission to do.

I recognize that the FCC is balancing important interests in a very complicated proceeding. Our country has a growing need for more broadband spectrum, and the UHF TV band is a cornucopia. But it appears that the incentive spectrum auction rules are oriented heavily around repacking the remaining stations in ways that will create the most coherent arrangement of vacated frequencies for buyers. There needs also to be coherence about what spectrum will remain for public television and its audience. After all, the FCC’s blueprint for national television service provided a successful framework for the expansion of public TV. It is the only entity that can ensure an effective plan to guide its evolution in the future.

Even though the FCC has ruled, I doubt this issue is resolved for good. The rules allow parties to petition the Commission to reconsider its decisions, and I would expect at least one such petition to be filed with regard to public TV assignments. The public can then support or oppose those reconsideration petitions — or, if you are really ambitious, you can file your own. I support reconsideration because I believe that public television — built through investments of individual contributors and the government — is too important a treasure to gamble.

John Schwartz is president of Voqal, which supports individuals and nonprofit organizations using technology and media to build an educated, empowered and engaged public. He has advocated for public broadcasting for nearly 40 years, founding community radio and television stations and bringing wireless broadband services dedicated to schools and nonprofits to markets throughout the U.S. He lives in Boulder, Colo., and can be reached through Voqal’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary mistakenly said that the deadline for comments on the FCC’s ruling is Aug. 11. An earlier version also linked to the wrong FCC document from the text reading “Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions.”

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