Pursuant to an agreement signed late last week with America’s Public Television Stations (APTS) and the PBS television network, T-Mobile US will pay the relocation expenses of PBS non-commercial low-power television (LPTV) stations and TV translators that would be displaced by T-Mobile and other wireless entities that won rights to 600 MHz broadcast TV spectrum during the recently-completed incentive auction.
T-Mobile, which spent nearly $8 billion for 1,525 licenses covering 414 of the auction’s 428 partial economic areas, emerged as the top finisher in the forward phase of the incentive auction, which closed in April and garnered more than $19.8 billion in total net proceeds. Under FCC rules, LPTV stations and translators do not qualify for the $1.75 billion fund that was set aside by Congress to pay the spectrum relocation expenses of full power television broadcasters that opt to remain on the air in the wake of the incentive auction. Broadcasters who qualify for the relocation fund, meanwhile are required by the FCC to “repack,” or move their operations to alternative channels, within 39 months of the closing date of the incentive auction, to accommodate new wireless broadband operations on their former channels in the 600 MHz band. Although several LPTV entities fought an unsuccessful legal battle to block FCC rules restricting their eligibility for the $1.75 billion relocation fund, APTS convinced the FCC to allow LPTV stations to remain on their licensed channels until winning bidders in the forward auction begin the process of building out their networks in areas served by LTPV licensees.
As explained by an APTS spokeswoman, T-Mobile first approached PBS with the idea of developing a cooperative arrangement that would speed the channel repacking process and thus provide T-Mobile with expedited access to the spectrum assets of PBS-affiliated LPTV stations in markets won by T-Mobile. Initially, APTS had predicted that rural markets where most non-commercial LPTV stations are located would be the last to be built out by forward auction winners. Spurred, however, by T-Mobile’s announcement that it would begin building out rural markets first—meaning that many LPTV stations in these areas would be subject to early displacement—the parties produced an agreement which covers the relocation expenses of all 384 LPTV and translator stations owned and operated by PBS.
Under the agreement, T-Mobile will provide PBS with a grant which will cover LPTV and translator relocation expenses and which will also conform to FCC funding rules for non-commercial stations. Although officials of T-Mobile, PBS and APTS offered no estimate of T-Mobile’s anticipated financial outlay, Jim McDonald, a former president of the National Translator Association, noted that the cost of a translator relocation typically runs from four to six figures, depending on a range of variables. As McDonald termed the arrangement as “low-hanging fruit” for T-Mobile, industry officials voiced uncertainty as to whether the T-Mobile/PBS/APTV deal will lead to similar, large-scale agreements between other wireless firms and LPTV or translator licensees.