FCC declines to protect public TV in 2016 spectrum auction

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The FCC has denied a request from public broadcasters to structure the upcoming spectrum auction to preserve universal public television service.

In a Second Order on Reconsideration issued Friday, the FCC also denied a petition to protect TV translators, which many rural stations use.

In a statement Monday, the Association of Public Television Stations, CPB and PBS said the FCC’s ruling creates “the very real possibility of a number of communities across America losing public television service following next year’s broadcast spectrum incentive auction.”

APTS, CPB and PBS had petitioned the FCC to allow only stations in multiservice public TV markets to participate in the auction, set to begin in mid-2016. Public broadcasters also asked that if a station in a sole-service market relinquishes spectrum in the auction, at least one noncommercial channel be set aside to enable a new public TV station to serve the market. The FCC denied both requests.

The public broadcasters filed their petition last September and continued to push the matter as recently as May 28 in a meeting with commission staff.

The FCC auction aims to meet the growing need of wireless companies to serve mobile customers with additional spectrum. All television stations must decide by this fall whether to give up their spectrum and get out of broadcasting, share channels with other stations, shift from UHF to a lesser-quality VHF signal or not participate.

Public broadcasters argued that for more than 60 years, the FCC has reserved space in the television band for noncommercial educational use in every community. “Through the petition denial,” they said in a statement, “the commission has decided for the first time ever to make the continued existence of noncommercial educational reserved spectrum subject entirely to market forces.”

In its 93-page ruling on several petitions, the FCC disagreed. The commission has denied similar requests when public TV stations have been in severe financial distress and when a noncommercial channel was vacant after several attempts to provide public TV service failed, it said.

“The incentive auction presents unique circumstances that we must take into account in implementing this policy,” the FCC said.

However, it noted that the FCC “remains fully committed to the mission of noncommercial broadcasting” and said public TV stations “provide an important service in the public interest.” Public stations have other ways to participate in the auction while continuing to broadcast, including channel sharing, it said.

The FCC wrote that it will address public TV service losses on a case-by-case basis and is considering specific ways to do so. Possibilities include consideration of minor modification applications, which would allow neighboring public stations to expand their coverage with an FCC waiver of power or height restrictions.

On the translator issue, raised in a petition by the Advanced Television Broadcasting Alliance, a nonprofit working to preserve broadcasting spectrum, the FCC declined to protect low-power television (LPTV) and translators during spectrum repacking following the auction. Those concerns “were outweighed by the detrimental impact that protecting them would have on the auction process and on the success of the incentive auction,” according to the ruling.

The FCC noted it has initiated a proceeding to consider measures to assist LPTV and TV translators that are displaced during repacking.

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