Comments filed Monday by broadcasters on the FCC’s plan to implement a phased-in approach to the repacking of television stations that opt to remain on the air in the wake of the incentive auction are urging modifications to that plan to incorporate flexibility. As broadcasters reiterated their criticism of the FCC’s 39-month deadline for the broadcast industry to transition to alternative spectrum, the wireless industry advised the FCC to adhere to the 39-month timeframe, warning that any delay would jeopardize the rapid introduction of new mobile broadband services to the public.
Through a Public Notice issued on September 30, the FCC’s Media Bureau and Incentive Auction Task Force requested stakeholder comment on plans to develop a phased-in schedule through which TV stations would be repacked in one of ten phases during the 39-month transition period. Under the FCC’s plan, while each phase would begin at the same time, they would have sequential completion dates with “complicated” stations being moved in latter phases to provide additional time. As stated in the Public Notice, the phased-in approach is also designed “to provide information to stations, vendors, and other industry participants in a way that will allow them to plan for and respect the obligations and resource requirements of stations that are assigned to earlier phases.” FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake also informed reporters that the FCC’s goal is to “[minimize] viewer inconvenience, efficiently [allocate] the resources necessary for broadcasters to operate on their new frequencies, and [ensure] that winning bidders for wireless licenses can deploy in the 600 megahertz band in a timely manner.”
Although it welcomed the FCC’s proposal as “a productive and critical step in the development of a successful transition plan,” the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) lamented, “the Commission’s continued insistence that the transition can be completed in 39 months has [forced] the Commission into a succession of unnecessary corners that ultimately threaten the transition’s viability.” Adding, “the 39-month deadline has . . . led to the development of a scheduling plan that will involve assigning stations to construction phases before the Commission or the stations themselves even know the scope of work involved,” the NAB warned that the phased-in approach “will create inefficiencies and conflicts at the outset.” Noting that “weather conditions, delayed zoning approvals, supply chain issues and unanticipated engineering complexity . . . can and will create delay that will have cascading effects for other stations,” the NAB stressed that the FCC “should plan for foreseeable and unforeseeable developments” by building “flexibility for addressing those developments into its plan at the outset.”
Along a similar vein, joint comments filed by Media General, Inc., Nexstar Broadcasting, Gray Television and several other broadcast groups characterized the proposed transition schedule as “overly optimistic about a number of factors that must come together for the transition to succeed.” Those commentators warned that broadcasters could be forced off the air “if they cannot construct their post-auction facilities by their designated phase completion date—even if through no fault of their own.” Meanwhile, as it endorsed FCC efforts “to develop a set, yet flexible schedule to provide certainty and stability to participating parties,” the Competitive Carriers Association emphasized the importance of retaining the 39-month transition deadline, declaring that “any unnecessary delay would hinder smaller carriers’ abilities to access this much-needed spectrum to the detriment of their customers.” Despite voicing support for the 39-month deadline, AT&T told the FCC it “remains skeptical about whether the process can be completed in 39 months” as it reminded the agency to be “cognizant of its own limitations and the long history of similar transitions in the 800 MHz, AWS-1 and DTV bands.”