FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Points to Big Changes Ahead for Television

Next-gen TV and spectrum auction likely to transform television and how Americans receive it

Tom Wheeler FCC
AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

Major changes are coming to American television and the way Americans get it.

That wasn’t exactly the message Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler set out to deliver in addressing the National Assn. of Broadcasters in Las Vegas on Wednesday, but he outlined a combination of changes that will shift TV toward a next-generation standard, introduce new services via TV signals and move stations to different frequencies.

Wheeler told the crowd that he intends for the FCC to put the next-generation TV standard, ATSC 3.0, up for public notice by the end of the month. “I think what you have proposed in terms of ATSC 3.0 is really significant,” said Wheeler. “We need to move with dispatch to get that into the public debate and to start the process on that.”

According to the FCC website: “The FCC gives the public notice that it is considering adopting or modifying rules on a particular subject and seeks the public’s comment. The Commission considers the comments received in developing final rules.”

The announcement received enthusiastic applause from the audience, made up mostly of broadcasters. The ATSC 3.0 standard would allow TV stations to be viewed on mobile devices, include 4K Ultra-HD picture and multichannel sound, and enable interactive services. NAB Chairman Gordon Smith said in his State of the Industry address Monday that the org is petitioning the FCC to allow voluntary adoption of the new standard.

The other major change Wheeler acknowledged will come at the end of the spectrum auction process now underway. Once spectrum is re-allocated from TV stations to wireless carriers, many television stations will have to move on the dial. Wheeler has previously raised the possibility that every TV station in the country would have to move.

Asked about that, Wheeler explained that he was pointing out that that was one possible outcome of the spectrum auction.

Wheeler said he is forbidden by law to reveal the numbers of broadcasters who have put up spectrum in the reverse auction and declined to speculate on how many billions of dollars it will bring them. “This is a market,” he said. “This is designed to pair supply and demand. We don’t know what that’s going to be. The wireless industry has had a constant mantra: ‘We need spectrum.’

“Very shortly they’re going to see that there is a significant chunk of spectrum available to them. Whether they step and bid for it, which will determine those numbers, will determine how serious they are about ‘We need spectrum.’” If wireless carriers don’t bid enough to clear the spectrum they want, he said, “Okay, we’ll back up, we’ll ratchet down the clear, and we’ll start the process again. And we’ll do it again and again, for as long as it takes for the market to work.”

Wheeler did offer a hint about the progress of the auction, calling it an “extravaganza.”

“You can read into that whatever you want,” he said, “but the people have shown up. And you’ll see that at the end of this month.” He warned though that the real work will come after the auction is completed, at which time stations will have 39 months to complete their transition to their new frequencies.

“I’ve said all along two things: One, that if the $1.75 billion (allocated by Congress) isn’t enough, I’ll be happy to lead the parade to say that has to be changed. And if the 39 months aren’t enough, we will be deal with the specifics that get created.”

Wheeler said that while FCC is charged with serving the public interest, the meaning of that isn’t often clear. Advocates claim to be serving the public interest, he said, when it aligns with their interests. “People who come to me and say ‘Terrible government regulation! Except for this one little thing right here.” Lobbyists predict catastrophe if their proposal isn’t adopted. “I’ve done that myself,” admitted Wheeler.

He said upon hearing the Pope talk about the common good, “I thought, that’s how we should define the public interest.”

He echoed that idea in discussing the potential of changes to retransmission fees. “Too often, corporate bickering has resulted in consumer harm. I think that’s why Congress asked us to take a look at it.

“I’m not going to pre-judge any of these issues. But ‘good faith’ was put in for a purpose of saying people of good faith can come together and avoid consumer harm. There seems to be an increase in disputes and resulting consumer harm. That’s what we have to look at.”

He avoided specifics on changes to ownership regulations, noting that the broadcasting market is likely to look different after the spectrum reallocation is complete. However, he also noted that there are strongly held beliefs among the FCC commissioners and it’s been difficult to get the necessary votes to revise ownership regs.

Addressing his own future, Wheeler said it’s too early to say whether he would like to stay on, and what might be next for him, with a year left in his term.

“I’m lucky enough to get to head this important agency at a time of incredible change in everything that we’re dealing with. And to get to deal with the ebb and flow of all of those issues. I just think you do your damndest to try to do the right thing and history will take care of itself.”