Time to Stick to the Facts and Find the Right Answer

These are exciting times. The long-anticipated broadcast television spectrum incentive auction is scheduled to begin in less than one week. Designing the reverse and forward auctions has been a herculean task, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staff deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the auction to this point in a timely fashion. But, unfortunately for the Commission, once the auction is complete, its work is only half done. That’s because the end of the auction brings perhaps the most challenging phase of all: repacking many hundreds – if not more than a thousand – broadcasters to new frequencies in the television band.

As NAB has repeatedly documented, broadcasters have serious concerns about the arduous repacking process ahead. After all, it took the better part of a decade and three extensions of time to complete the digital television (DTV) transition, which involved relocating far fewer broadcasters, did not rely on flash cuts and was buttressed by tens of millions of dollars designed to help consumers make the switch to digital. Above all, however, the greatest worry with respect to the upcoming 600 MHz transition is the Commission’s current rule requiring every broadcaster to complete its involuntary relocation within only 39 months following the auction. If the FCC is serious about repacking as many as 1,300 broadcasters, anyone who has any understanding of the broadcast industry knows that it is impossible to accomplish that task in such a short period of time.

Fortunately, the FCC commissioners have uniformly recognized the challenges associated with the repack and have indicated in testimony before Congress that – despite the current rules – they in no way want to see any broadcaster forced off the air for reasons beyond their control.

On the other hand, the FCC’s chairman has continued to insist that the 39-month timeline is sound. When pressed by Congress to defend that deadline given that the FCC has not done any serious analysis of what it would actually take to conduct a nationwide repack, the chairman explained that 39 months was a reasonable timeline, because, after all, even NAB had originally suggested that 30 months would be sufficient. This answer is disingenuous, and given that it has been repeated on several occasions by Commission staff, it’s time to address and bury it once and for all.

More than three years ago, NAB submitted its initial comments in the incentive auction proceeding (then under Chairman Julius Genachowski) recommending that the FCC extend its proposed timeline for moving stations to new channels following the upcoming broadcast spectrum incentive auction. The FCC had proposed a minuscule 18-month timeline, to which NAB responded, “[t]he 18-month construction time frame proposed in the Notice for relocating stations is unrealistically short.”[1] At the time, NAB assumed, as many did, that the Commission was considering relocating “approximately 400 to 500 stations.”[2] Thus, NAB recommended that the FCC extend the deadline to 30 months, which should be enough time to “allow most stations to complete” the transition.[3] In addition, to stretch that 30 months as long as possible, NAB also proposed that “the forward auction should not be deemed completed until, or after, the time at which stations file their construction permit applications,”[4] which the Commission did not adopt. And finally, NAB made clear that “based on television stations’ experiences in the DTV transition, stations in certain metropolitan areas (such as New York City and Denver) and stations in border areas requiring international coordination could require substantially longer than even three years to construct new facilities.”[5]

Thus, not only did NAB rely on information at the time that suggested only 400 to 500 stations would move, and seek to push back the starting point for the timetable until after construction permits were issued, we also asserted that even repacking all of 400 to 500 of stations would require more than 30 months.

Beyond those inconvenient details, there have been three important developments in the intervening three-plus years. First, the FCC released a set of sample repacking scenarios in the summer of 2014, suggesting that the Commission is likely to repack far more stations than NAB anticipated in our 2013 comments. Instead of moving perhaps 400 stations to new channels, the FCC’s publicly released simulations suggested that the FCC could require more than 1,300 stations to relocate. Second, once the FCC released this data, NAB commissioned a study – the first of its kind – to examine each of the challenging elements that make up a nationwide repack of many hundreds or more than 1,000 stations. Third, in May 2014, the FCC surprised everyone by adopting a “death penalty” repacking rule that would require stations unable to complete their transitions within 39 months – no matter what the reason – to go off the air. The rule did not contemplate any exceptions or extensions – a rigid and inflexible deadline that no one anticipated.

Faced with this new information, NAB re-evaluated the timeline for the upcoming broadcaster transition. It became immediately clear that 39 months would not provide sufficient time to repack the number of stations the Commission was anticipating. As a result, NAB has asked the Commission to establish aggressive, but achievable, deadlines for repacked television stations after the auction, when more is known about many stations will move, where they are located and to which channels they will be moved.

This evolution is certainly reasonable. New facts and circumstances demand new solutions. While it is concerning that some continue to hide behind comments NAB submitted more than three years ago under different circumstances, it’s frightening that these same officials are hiding at all. The point of the repacking conversation is not to prove who is right; rather it’s to get it right. As the FCC pivots to thinking about repacking – which is now likely less than a year away – rather than being cute about past comments, it should actually engage and wrestle with the enormously complex repacking problem ahead. Only that course will give the broadcasting and wireless industries confidence that the post-auction transition will be a success.

[1] Comments of the National Association of Broadcasters at 50, GN Docket No. 12-268 (Jan. 25, 2013).

[2] Id. at 50.

[3] Id. (emphasis added).

[4] Id.

[5] Id. (emphasis added).