FCC turns down special protection for public TV translators in spectrum auction

Print More

The FCC has rejected a request by pubcasters to prioritize and protect public TV translators during next year’s spectrum auction.

Translators are essentially low-powered TV stations used to rebroadcast a full-power station’s signals to otherwise unreachable areas. Survival of some of public TV’s more than 550 translators is in question because FCC rules do not protect their licensees’ rights to continue broadcasting after the auction ends.

Rules the FCC adopted last year offer a full range of protections for full-power commercial and noncommercial TV stations, clearing the way for full-power broadcasters to sell spectrum in an auction that is widely expected to raise tens of billions of dollars. Broadcasters will sell spectrum to the FCC, which will in turn sell it for use by smartphones and other wireless services.

Also under the FCC’s rules, full-power stations that sit out the auction are guaranteed access to new channels if the agency needs their spectrum in the auction’s wake. In addition, the FCC is required to reimburse costs to any full-power stations forced to move to different channels after the auction.

But broadcasters operating the more than 3,500 TV translators in the U.S. received no similar assurances under the 2014 rules. Like the estimated 2,000 low-power stations that the FCC declined to protect, translator operators may not be able to find new channel space after the auction is over.

In an effort to protect public TV’s universal coverage, public broadcasters urged the FCC to prioritize their translators over those operated by commercial broadcasters and LPTV stations in the event that the FCC needs more channels to meet its clearance targets.

But in a unanimous decision released Thursday on the FCC’s website, the FCC rejected public broadcasting’s call for special treatment, in part on technical grounds.

“We do not license translators on an NCE [noncommercial educational] basis, as APTS/PBS/CPB suggest, thus we have no reliable means to distinguish such translators in determining when to apply the priority,” the FCC said in its order, referring to comments filed jointly by PBS, CPB and the Association of Public Television Stations.

Idaho Public Television GM Ron Pisaneschi expressed disappointment in the FCC’s decision. The state network operates five full-power TV stations and 49 translators to deliver service across Idaho.

“It is hard for me to see how the FCC is going to clear enough spectrum in Idaho without turning off translators,” Pisaneschi said. “Based on what open frequencies are currently available, I don’t know how some areas won’t go dark.”

However, John Crigler, a communications attorney with the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer, said commercial broadcasters would have been upset if the FCC had favored pubcasters.

Though the FCC order rejects public broadcasting’s request for preferential treatment, Crigler said, it also includes assurances that the agency will try to help translator and LPTV licensees displaced by the auction find new channels. The agency also cleared the way for LPTV and translator licensees to share their channel capacity.

“The FCC is really trying to help,” Crigler said. “These are positive opportunities.”

Also in its order, the FCC postponed a requirement that all LPTV stations and translators convert from analog to digital transmission technology until 51 months after the auction is over. The original transition date, which the agency previously put on hold, was Sept. 1, 2015.

In a statement, APTS President Patrick Butler said: “While we remain concerned that many of our viewers may be left without public television service if the more than 600 translators on which rural areas depend are not effectively protected in this auction process, we are pleased that the FCC has been responsive to our concerns on this important issue, and we look forward to working with the Commissioners and staff toward a successful resolution of these remaining issues.”

Related stories from Current: