B'casters, telecom giants back alternate plan for easing wi-fi crunch

Broadcasters are warning that the complexities involved in rejiggering the channel lineup to prepare for a wireless future should not be rushed, suggesting that the FCC’s 2014 timetable for conducting incentive auctions for spectrum may be too short.

“We continue to believe this should not be done in a rush. It should be done with all deliberate speed,” Gordon Smith, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said in a press conference on Friday. He warned that too hasty a process could lead to “diminished interference and international conflict,” as the FCC’s plan calls for “repacking” stations that choose to stay in business yet are forced to change spots on the channel lineup so that contiguous spectrum space can be made available for wireless use.

“I can’t even begin to describe to you the amount of complexity in this whole effort, but it is of enormous consequence to the American people,” Smith said.

Under the FCC’s plan, stations can voluntarily give up their spectrum, and presumably go out of business, in exchange for sharing in some of the proceeds from an auction of that airwaves to wireless carriers. The plan is a central priority of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who has warned that a “spectrum crunch” will limit the country’s ability to compete in advances in mobile and broadband technology.

Stations, however, are worried about the disruption if they stay in business, as many may be forced to change their place on the channel lineup.

At the press conference, Rick Kaplan, NAB exec VP of strategic planning, suggested that the “repacking” could involve up to 500 stations out of almost 1,800 nationwide.

Although the FCC has made progress in designing the auction itself, he said that the plan for “repacking” is still unresolved. Congressional approval of the incentive auctions included a requirement that the FCC make “all reasonable efforts’ to preserve the coverage areas of stations that stay in business. The NAB, however, said that the FCC’s current preferred plan for doing so is “inconsistent’ with Congress’ intent because it “is likely to remove service from hundreds of thousands of consumers currently with access to stations’ signals.” The lobbying org filed official comments about the FCC’s plan on Friday.

One of the big complexities of repacking is what happens to stations in border areas, something that will involve coordination with Canada and Mexico and perhaps modifying existing treaties.

Kaplan, former chief of the FCC’s wireless bureau, said that the FCC shouldn’t let an “artificial deadline” force it to rush a complicated process. “When i see the engineers confused, then I know it is really serious,” he said.

On Thursday. the NAB and AT&T, T-Mobile, Intel, Verizon Wireless and Qualcomm announced that they had agreed to an alternative plan that would separate broadcast and mobile spectrum in larger swaths than other proposals. A plan in which stations would be put in between wireless services’ uplink and downlink, the NAB said, risks interference.

The NAB also believed that a $1.75 billion relocation fund should be dedicated as the budget for repacking, and stations also are concerned at what point they will be reimbursed. Kaplan said that it will cost, on average, $3 million for each station to move on the channel lineup.

Broadcasters also have questioned just how many stations will give up their spectrum. Smith said that he was “not aware of any of our members volunteering to go out of business,” and he also said that he has not heard any expressing interest in taking part. An organization led by Preston Padden, Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition, has 39 who have expressed interest, Smith noted, but “I don’t know who they are.” He said that his worry was that they tended to be minority-owned stations, at a time when diversity is a concern in media ownership.

Smith emphasized that the NAB is not trying to be obstructionist but “want to emphasize getting it done right.”

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