The FCC’s 39-month deadline for repacking television channels in the wake of the incentive auction ranked high on the list of topics debated during an FCC oversight hearing conducted Tuesday by the House Communications & Technology Subcommittee. All five FCC commissioners fielded questions at Tuesday’s hearing where the incentive auction, the FCC’s enforcement activities, the status of certain planned or pending proceedings and a variety of other subjects were discussed. Asked by Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA) whether television broadcasters would be forced off the air if they fail to adhere to the incentive auction repacking deadline, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler replied that the FCC would grant waivers of the 39-month deadline if needed, emphasizing: “this is not a drop-off the table situation for everybody.”
Matsui’s concerns were echoed by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who advised Wheeler and his colleagues that 39 months may not provide broadcasters with enough time to relocate, given the fact that as many as 1,100 stations may be competing simultaneously for tower crews, consultants and antenna space in their efforts to comply with the repacking deadline. As Matsui stressed to Wheeler that “we need to make sure that this transition doesn’t leave TV viewers in the dark,” Wheeler highlighted the importance of balancing the concerns of broadcasters and the wireless industry in maintaining that carriers bidding for vacated broadcast channels need assurance they will receive that spectrum. Wheeler further indicated that the FCC is open to seeking additional funding from Congress if the $1.75 billion TV Broadcaster Relocation Fund proves to be insufficient in reimbursing broadcasters for their repacking costs.
Meanwhile, Wheeler offered lawmakers a timeline for certain high-profile proceedings at the FCC. Acknowledging that the FCC had “missed” this fall’s target date for launching rulemaking proceedings to clarify the Commission’s authority over Internet privacy pursuant to the Open Internet order, Wheeler observed, “we have long had responsibility for privacy issues, and how that maps over into the IP world is something that I hope we would be able to surface proposals [on] early next year.” (However, FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Reilly disagreed in suggesting that the FCC risks exceeding its statutory authority in this area and should therefore leave web privacy issues in the hands of the Federal Trade Commission.) Wheeler also confirmed that the FCC has set a target of adopting rules next summer in its recently-launched 5G spectrum proceeding. However, with respect to pending rulemaking proposals to classify online video distributors as multichannel video program distributors, Wheeler pointed to new developments in the rapidly-emerging online video market in admitting: “we have not moved forward . . . and I don’t see, until the situation changes, that we would.”