APTS pleased with spectrum legislation, but challenges loom

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There’s good news for pubcasters in the legislation giving the FCC spectrum auction authority that passed this week in Congress — but many questions remain, and serious technical challenges lie ahead as spectrum is reallocated and repacked to provide more bandwidth for wireless devices. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

“Overall, we’re feeling pretty good about how it came out,” Lonna Thompson, c.o.o. of the Association of Public Television Stations, told Current. “We got nearly all of the precautions we wanted in the legislation to protect stations.” Original Senate legislation contained an estimate of $1 billion to repack the entire spectrum following an auction; APTS and other organizations were able to push that to $1.75 billion in the final bill. Also, the auction is officially voluntary, and no stations will be forced to move from UHF to VHF. Cable carriage rights for pubTV stations are safe.

However, Thompson said, “some of the questions that stations still want answers to, such as what their spectrum is worth and the specific rules of the auctions, aren’t specified” in the bill, which will use auction proceeds to help pay for a payroll tax break and unemployment benefits, as well as support a public safety network for emergency responders.

And from a technical standpoint, the repacking “is going to be very disruptive,” Thompson said. “With the digital transition [in June 2009], stations had at least two channels, analog and digital. They could get ready and when the switch came, they just closed the analog channel.” This isn’t case with repacking: Stations will need to close down one channel first, and then move to another, not an easy task. “We’ve heard from engineers that it’s very problematic, and stations could be off the air for a significant period of time during the switch,” she said.

Developing auction rules and conducting the auctions will take two to three years minimum, Thompson estimated, with repacking occurring after that.

Here is a PDF of the legislation; the section on the spectrum auction begins on page 118.

More about the spectrum auctions and related issues in the next Current, Feb. 27.

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