During a hearing conducted yesterday before the House Communications & Technology Subcommittee, House lawmakers sided with witnesses from both the broadcast and wireless industries on the need for additional funds beyond the $1.5 billion set aside previously by Congress to pay the repacking costs of broadcasters who must relocate to new channels in the wake of the incentive auction. While broadcasters assured subcommittee members that they are already working hard to satisfy the FCC’s 39-month deadline for completing the repacking process, wireless industry representatives cited the importance of strict adherence to the 39-month deadline and their opposition to any blanket extension of that deadline by the FCC to ensure spectrum assets won during the incentive auction are quickly put to use for the benefit of the nation’s wireless subscribers.
Industry witnesses at yesterday’s hearing included (1) National Association of Broadcasters executive vice president Rick Kaplan; (2) Scott Bergman, the vice president of regulatory affairs at wireless association CTIA; (3) Competitive Carriers Association executive vice president Rebecca Murphy Thompson, and (4) Jim Tracy, the Chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE). Overwhelmingly, these witnesses informed subcommittee members that the $1.5 billion allocated by Congress to cover the repacking costs of broadcasters is insufficient, given that the FCC has received requests for more than $2.1 billion in estimated relocation expenses. Recalling that $1.75 billion was the highest amount lawmakers could agree on in adopting the Middle Class Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which authorized the FCC to conduct the incentive auction, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) acknowledged: “we have more work to do here, clearly.” Walden also admitted that funds to cover the relocation costs of TV translator stations “should have been included in the funding piece . . . and it’s something we’re going to have to work through.” Ranking subcommittee member Mike Doyle (D-PA) voiced strong support for pending legislation, introduced by ranking Commerce Committee member Frank Pallone (D-NJ), that would set aside an additional $1 billion to cover repacking expenses.
The timetable for completing the repacking process proved to be a more contentious topic of debate. On behalf of the tower industry, Tracy testified that the incentive auction and the FCC’s 39-month repacking deadline have created a “perfect storm” for NATE members who are scrambling to complete work on more than 1,000 broadcast tower relocations amidst the simultaneous rollout of the nationwide “FirstNet” broadband first responder network. Voicing doubt that NATE members can finish all of the required work within 39 months, Tracy advised the panel that there is one inescapable fact: “there are not, at present, enough qualified workers to perform all of the tower work we will be required to complete.” While recommending adoption of the Pallone bill, Kaplan told lawmakers that passage of a legislative “safety valve” is needed to ensure that no TV station will go dark or have its service area reduced for circumstances beyond its control. Although the FCC has said it would consider waivers of the 39-month deadline on a case-by-case basis, Kaplan warned lawmakers that, because the FCC will not consider any request that impacts the overall 39-month transition period, “Congress is important in this process.” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) replied, however, that the 39-month deadline is adequate and that Congress should focus primarily on the need for additional repacking funds. Along that vein, Bergman and Thompson emphasized that the waiver process instituted by the FCC is available for individual broadcasters who need it and that any blanket extension of the 39-month deadline would impair the deployment of 5G wireless services and jeopardize the introduction of competitive wireless broadband services in the 600 MHz band.