Regulation - What is it Good For?

Recovering Television Spectrum

Rabbit_Ears)Lately, the FCC finds itself in sales mode as it works to convince television station owners to sell their existing spectrum. For those not familiar with what the FCC is doing, this process is being referred to as an incentive auction for the 600 MHz band of spectrum. This spectrum today is owned by UHF TV stations.

This is spectacular spectrum and probably has the best characteristics for delivering wireless data. The spectrum easily carries to the horizon and it blasts through just about anything. I remember as a kid watching TV in a basement from a transmitter that was on a mountain on the far horizon. There is no better spectrum for the cellular companies than these bands.

This is called an incentive auction because TV stations are not being mandated to leave this spectrum. So the FCC is now engaged in a series of regional meetings to try to convince the stations to sell their spectrum. The auctions are expected to be lucrative, and station owners and the FCC will share the auction revenues. The AWS auction last November was wildly successful for the FCC. The FCC had set a minimum threshold on the spectrum at just over $10 billion and the final auction raised over $34 billion, and AWS spectrum is not even close to the great coverage characteristics of the 600 MHz spectrum. The TV spectrum should be far more lucrative since this is basically the holy grail of spectrum.

But many stations are hesitant to sell their spectrum, even at the billions they are likely to reap. The FCC has put together a complicated proposal to ‘repack’ the spectrum so that a station that sells its spectrum can stay on the air. But that is the part of the whole process that has stations nervous. It’s possible that a station could be given a slice of spectrum that is used by somebody else, such as sharing the space with wireless microphones. The repacked spectrum also doesn’t have as much of a cushion around each channel as exists today, which makes stations worried about out-of-band interference.

Having no interference is vital for television stations for several reasons. Historically, local stations got their revenues from advertising, and the rates they can charge are based upon how many theoretical eyeballs can watch them plus their rating in the local market. TV transmission is a tricky thing. For homes near the base transmitter, the power of most TV stations can overpower most interference. But, as you get to the further edges of the transmission path interference becomes a real issue. And in TV, interference is manifested by poor reception and pixelization. So TV stations are worried that their effective delivery circle will get smaller and that there will be significant interference in parts of that area.

The financial issue is further complicated by the fact that local stations (or their corporate owners) today make a lot of money from local transmission agreements. These are fees that are charged to cable providers that want to retransmit their station on cable systems. The fear here is the same in that they are worried that cities near the fringes of their service area might argue that they no longer owe retransmission fees due to degraded quality.

Unfortunately there is no way to pre-test the delivery in one of the repacked blocks. Spectrum engineering is really complicated stuff and the quality of a transmission will vary widely in different pockets of a spectrum delivery area based upon local conditions. The only way to test it is to send out the signal and see what kinds of complaints you get from viewers.

The FCC is putting everything they have into these meetings with Chairman Tom Wheeler attending most of these regional meetings to talk with television station owners. There are already a number of stations that have said that they are interested in joining the auction, but the FCC needs a significant number of them to join before the auction can proceed.

Big cellular companies won’t be the only ones to benefit from the spectrum; the FCC has promised that there will be slices of this spectrum set aside for WiFi and other public uses. So the whole country is on hold waiting to see if the FCC can convince enough stations to move. The billions that the stations can collect from the auction is certainly an incentive, but we are going to have to wait to see how many of them actually make the big leap. It ought to be an interesting summer.

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