If any part of the broadcast plant ever merited the label “necessary evil,” a top nominee would be the tower. Expensive to maintain, fraught with potential hazards, bound by an ever-growing web of regulations, unloved by neighbors and often located inconveniently far away, a pubcaster’s tower still serves as the essential link between its program service and its audience. In the early years of public TV and radio — before streaming and podcasting and cable and over-the-top video delivery — pubcasters and their audiences depended completely on the reach of the signals their towers could deliver. When broadcasting was a new and developing communications medium, those towers were much easier to build. As long as they weren’t in an airport flight path, the NIMBY factor was rarely a concern as public TV and FM stations spread across the country from the 1950s into the 1970s.
Three national public broadcasting organizations are asking the FCC to change its spectrum auction rules to ensure that channel repacking leaves no community without noncommercial television. The Association for Public Television Stations, PBS and CPB are concerned that repacking, or the channel shifting that will occur after the auction, could create such “white spaces.” Public television’s mission includes universal coverage, providing every American household with access to free educational television content. In a Sept. 15 petition, the organizations asked the FCC to “reconsider and revise” its auction rules based on the precedence that the agency has long recognized noncom TV spectrum as protected and distinct from commercial. The spectrum auction rules make no distinction between commercial and public spectrum.
Public stations in Connecticut and San Mateo may be at the leading edge of a mass sell-off of public media assets in next year’s FCC spectrum auction. These stations have entered into agreements with LocusPoint Networks, a subsidiary of the private equity firm Blackstone Group, whereby LocusPoint shoulders the stations’ operating costs until the auction and then takes a significant share of the auction revenue after the station has sold its spectrum to wireless bidders. These deals have to be disclosed to the FCC, but their details do not. When the spectrum is auctioned, stations may receive tens of millions of dollars for their spectrum, especially in congested coastal areas. This money is unrestricted and can go back into community-based digital media, or into university gyms, or into a city’s general treasury.
Pubcasters who own broadcast towers are about to get regulatory relief thanks to a FCC decision that closes the books on a lengthy effort to revise rules governing tower safety and maintenance. At an open meeting Friday, FCC commissioners approved the changes while decrying the long road their predecessors took to get there. “This issue was first raised in 2005 during the Commission’s 2004 biennial rule review,” said commissioner Michael O’Rielly. The question that has to be asked is, why did it take the commission nine years?”
Though the Part 17 rules apply to all owners of “antenna structures” (FCC-speak for towers), the Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau promoted the changes as a boon to cellular and data services, which depend on hundreds of thousands of smaller towers across the country to meet ever-growing demand from consumers. By eliminating a requirement that tower owners conduct quarterly physical checks of the monitoring systems at all of their towers, the FCC “will save antenna structure owners millions of dollars annually,” said WTB representative Michael Smith.
The FCC recently released the entire text of its Report and Order detailing rules for the upcoming broadcast spectrum auctions, making it clear that it intends to make no effort to preserve public TV signal coverage. The 484-page report, “Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions,” rejects the proposal supported by CPB and other leading broadcast organizations to preserve at least one station per geographic market. If you dive into this ponderous document, I recommend paragraph 367 and footnote 1090 (unfortunately, not a typo — there really are over 1,000 footnotes). In paragraph 367, the FCC states that it declines to “restrict acceptance of such bids based on the potential loss of television service or specific programming.”
The FCC further states that any such restrictions “could reduce the amount of spectrum available” to carry out the auction and undermine the “goal of allowing market forces to determine the highest and best use of spectrum.” The long and short of it is that if the entities that hold America’s 289 UHF public TV licenses decide to sell their underlying spectrum in the forthcoming “incentive” auction, that spectrum will be lost to noncommercial television forever. It need not be so.