Spectrum repack expenses top $1.75 billion fund

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Broadcasters have requested $2.1 billion from the FCC to cover their costs in moving to new TV channels.

The total includes $336.6 million for the 148 public broadcasters affected by the multi-staged TV channel repacking process, for an average of $2.2 million each. It also exceeds the $1.75 billion allocated by Congress for the work, an outcome that broadcasters’ representatives in Washington had predicted.

The commission announced Friday that it expects the total costs of the repack to change as staff review and finalize each application. Broadcasters may also incur unexpected expenses after they begin work. Stations nationwide are moving channels due to the FCC spectrum auction. First payments to broadcasters are expected by the end of the year.

America’s Public Television Stations “has consistently warned both Congress and the FCC that this fund would not cover these costs,” said President Pat Butler in a statement to Current. “The FCC’s confirmation is an important step toward a successful resolution of a serious problem.”

“Telecommunications leaders in Congress have just as consistently promised that they would review the funding situation once the auction was completed and the actual costs were known,” Butler said.

About 14 percent of the total requested by public broadcasters would go to one station, WETA in suburban Washington, D.C. The station, which is assigned to move from Channel 26 to 14, asked for $48 million.

“Channel 14 is problematic for technical reasons, as it’s adjacent to two-way radio traffic frequencies” such as walkie-talkies, said Christopher Lane, WETA engineering VP. The FCC requires broadcasters on Channel 14 to mitigate interference, Lane said, which accounts for $40 million of WETA’s request.

Such mitigation could require WETA to contact affected land mobile users, negotiate their moves to other frequencies and purchase new equipment for them, according to Lisa Lindstrom Delaney, WETA general counsel.

“This is a new process for everyone involved,” Delaney said. “It’s very difficult to predict” the outcome for WETA.

With its headquarters in Arlington, Va., WETA is surrounded by 1,500 individual frequencies and 11,000 licensed devices within 100 kilometers of the station, Lane said. “Universities, hospitals, hotels — anyplace that uses walkie-talkies for communication,” he said.

The FCC tried to avoid assigning TV stations to Channel 14 because of these “coordination challenges with private land mobile radio systems,” said FCC spokesperson Charles Meisch. “In more congested markets, some stations were nonetheless reassigned to 14, and some of those have since filed for a waiver of the construction permit deadline in order to request alternate facilities in the priority window. WETA is among those stations.”

The FCC gave WETA permission to request another channel assignment in a filing window that opens next month.

But Lane said WETA has reviewed existing frequencies in the market and doesn’t see an available channel that will solve the problem.

The July 12 FCC announcement also signaled the start of the 39-month timeframe for broadcasters to complete repack work. Stations are assigned to one of 12 phases to complete repacks. WETA is in Phase 4, set for completion in August 2019.

Translators are not covered in repack reimbursements. T-Mobile recently announced it would pay those costs for public broadcasters.