Shock and dismay at US spectrum policy

In the early 1980s, Congress created Low Power Television (LPTV) service to fill a void in local communities that were not fully covered by full-power television broadcasting, enhancing the diversity of the unique “voices” providing free, over-the-air television service. Today, in many places throughout the country, these stations are the only broadcast television service available, and often they provide communities with their only access to the major broadcast networks. 

There are currently close to 6,000 LPTV and TV translator stations that serve the heart of America – with more stations in the construction process – providing local programming that cannot be found elsewhere. LPTV stations offer millions of Americans reporting on city council meetings, Friday night high school football games, connections to adopt abandoned and unwanted animals in search of a new home, free legal and medical advice through interviews with local lawyers and doctors, access to local church services, and warning about impending weather emergencies. And most viewers have no clue that the station they are watching is a low-power station instead of a full-power. This is LOCAL TV provided by NO ONE ELSE – not cell phone companies, not cable providers, not satellite distributors and not Internet purveyors.  ONLY local broadcasters.   

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LPTV service has also brought more diversity to the broadcast television business. Minority and female broadcasters have used LPTV and translator stations to get their start and offer fresh, local voices to their communities. Many LPTV broadcasters are mom-and-pop operators who have sunk their life savings into their businesses with an eye towards serving their communities.  

Unfortunately, the FCC’s upcoming broadcast spectrum incentive auction puts at risk low-power TV stations and could force many of them to turn off their signal forever. In the auction, full-power broadcast TV stations may voluntarily return the airwaves they use to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in return for a share of the profits from auctioning those airwaves to wireless carriers. Full-power TV stations that choose not to participate in the auction would be compensated for moving to a different channel location in order to achieve continuous blocks of airwaves to auction off. 

As crafted by Congress and the FCC, however, the auction prevents low-power television stations from participating nor does it protect LPTV stations from being moved to another channel at their own expense. If an LPTV station would interfere with cellular service and cannot afford to move to another channel, the station would be turned off. It would go dark. Say “good-bye” to local high school football games, Spanish or Vietnamese ethnic programs, local weather alerts, or local church services. 

Fully one-third of LPTV and translator stations are now at risk of being shut down by the FCC as it conducts the incentive auction. Ironically and perversely, phone companies are planning on using the airwaves from the auction to mimic the exact same service that broadcasters now provide – so-called LTE broadcasting. Cell phone companies would get broadcast spectrum to replicate broadcast television service, but without the obligations to provide local programming.  

Why would the government not protect LPTV and translator stations? So that the FCC can run the auction faster and with fewer precise calculations, completing the auction in less than half of the ten years Congress authorized. The FCC has proposed rules that run the auction at a breakneck speed with, literally, no consideration at all of the impact on citizens served by LPTV and translator services. The rules reallocate LPTV spectrum to wireless carriers without assigning any value at all to the LPTV and translator services that would be eliminated. 

The current airwaves auction ongoing at the FCC provides an opportunity to rectify the incentive auction rules and safeguard LPTV service. The FCC predicted that the value of wireless spectrum from the so-called AWS-3 auction would top out at around $15 billion. The FCC has now raised almost $44 billion from that auction and the price is still going up. What does that mean for the upcoming broadcast spectrum incentive auction scheduled for 2016?   Will this slow down the planned digital land grab? It most definitely should. 

Why? Because the government needs time to fix the unconscionable mistake that it made by essentially destroying the low-power and translator industry – depriving millions of people critical video services. 

Congress recently called upon the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to study the impact of the auction on the LPTV and translator industry. While this study is in progress, Congress and the FCC should step back and make the effort to understand and take into consideration the complexities that the auction brings.  

And the argument that this auction is needed to help pay down the nation debt is specious. The government suggests that the net return to the Treasury might be in the neighborhood of $8 billion. While that is a lot of money to most of us, but it is just a drop in the $20 trillion deficit bucket.  

The government stands to gain far more in revenues by allowing local stations adopt new transmission standards, that while increasing the number of channels and enhancing the quality, would provide new services which are revenue producing and taxable. Broadcasters should be afforded the opportunity to use advance technologies that will foster a competitive force in the landscape and allow innovation to proceed with new technologies. Simply allowing competitive enterprise to prevail can solve the alleged spectrum shortage. 

The international broadcasting community learned of the plight of LPTV and translator service during a meeting of the International Telecom Union last month in Geneva. International delegates expressed concern, bordering on shock and dismay, with the U.S. policy of selling off broadcast airwaves and not looking for international harmonization. They view the broadcast incentive spectrum auction as a very important and ground-breaking event, and they are very interested in the solutions that come forth to prevent the loss of services such as LPTV and translator stations. 

In fact, broadcasters have a technical proposal to protect these stations. The next-generation broadcast standard being explored by the broadcast community is exactly the type of marketplace solution that will help preserve these indispensable conduits of free information and entertainment. That is a step to take before the auction is conducted – before we waste the value of LPTV. Save the digital landscape. Don't destroy existing businesses – let the marketplace decide the future.

Libin is the executive director of the Advanced Television Broadcasting Alliance, whose goal is to preserve and promote the efficient and effective use of all television broadcast spectrum.

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