The Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act of 2012, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in February 2012, gave the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to conduct auctions of spectrum currently assigned to television broadcasters for future wireless broadband uses. The Act sets aside a portion of the auction revenues for the possible relocation of Wireless Medical Telemetry Service (WMTS) users, affecting hospitals and health systems. While the FCC has not yet proposed the rules that will outline how the relocation will occur, there are steps that current WMTS hospital users should take to ensure they can participate in the FCC’s future plans. Medical device manufacturers who have equipment that relies on the WMTS must also be aware of these changes and the effect a change will have on use of their technology within the hospital setting.
In 2000, the FCC set aside spectrum for the WMTS on the spectrum assigned for TV Channel 37 (608-614 MHz), and in two other spectral bands. While other spectrum had been used for WMTS purposes in the past, the FCC set aside this spectrum in light of the transition of television stations from analog to digital, and the increased chance that such digital television operations would cause interference to unlicensed WMTS equipment. In establishing Channel 37 for this purpose, the FCC required the coordination of WMTS uses so that the risk of interference would be minimalized.
However, now that Congress has given the FCC the authority to auction portions of the television spectrum for wireless broadband purposes, the WMTS set aside on Channel 37 may be at risk. Part of the FCC’s auction plans include the “repacking” of the television stations currently operating on Channels 2-51 to a much smaller band in order to free up a contiguous bloc of spectrum for the wireless auction. Since the spectrum currently set for WMTS use may be needed for this repacking process, the Act passed by Congress established a fund of $300,000,000 to reimburse the current users of Channel 37 for their relocation to other spectrum bands so long as the entire channel could be cleared.
Status - Regulations To Be Released – September 2012
The specific regulatory proposal for how the repacking process will proceed is anticipated for release by the FCC later this month (September 2012), and it is likely that the FCC will seek information about hospital incumbent users of the spectrum to determine if their relocation could be reimbursed within budgeted funds outlined in the law. The FCC will also seek detailed information on the number of current users of the spectrum block, the types of uses and related equipment associated with these uses, and an estimate of the costs of new equipment if the FCC sets aside new spectrum for dedicated WMTS uses.
An initial step that all WMTS users of the spectrum should take is to ensure that they have registered their use of the spectrum with the WMTS frequency coordinator. Since it is likely that the FCC will rely on the frequency coordinator to be a main source of information relating to the proposed relocation of WMTS users, it will be important for the coordinator to have accurate information to provide to the FCC. To that end, hospital facilities should conduct an audit to ensure that the equipment using the spectrum in the 608-614 MHz band is properly registered with the frequency coordinator.
The impact of these changes could be far greater on rural or community hospitals with far more limited resources to make equipment adjustments to meet new requirements. The change may also be significant for manufacturers whose equipment will no longer function or function well when the channel adjustments are made.