NAB says FCC's repacking timeline too 'inflexible' for broadcasters


The FCC’s 39-month timeline for repacking spectrum after the incentive auction ends is “arbitrary and inflexible” and may force some broadcasters off the air before they can move to other channels, the National Association of Broadcasters said.

The commission maintains that its schedule provides ample time to reshuffle TV broadcasters’ 600 MHz spectrum for wireless use to avoid interference problems after the auction is concluded. But the NAB said in a Friday filing with the FCC (PDF) that the schedule doesn’t give broadcasters enough time to move to other channels.

The FCC expects more than 1,100 U.S. stations may need to move to new channels after the auction. Broadcasters who haven’t moved off the affected spectrum within the 39-month deadline may be forced off the air, the NAB argued, interrupting service for consumers who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite offerings.

“The sheer number of stations that must move, the interference interdependencies between these stations, and the highly individualized nature of broadcast transmission facilities will make this the most challenging transition the Commission has ever overseen,” NAB executives wrote. “While all five Commissioners have publicly stated that no station will be forced off the air if it is unable to meet the FCC’s arbitrary 39-month cutoff, that is precisely what the current rules provide… While broadcasters have every incentive to move as quickly as possible, there is no reason for the Commission to make television stations and their viewers unnecessary victims of a deadline that has little chance of being met and only risks creating inefficiency and delay.”

Related: T-Mobile’s 600 MHz auction repacking report is “oversimplified and misleading,” NAB argues

Rather than imposing the 39-month timeline on all broadcasters, the FCC should assign broadcasters to staggered phases “to attempt to avoid bottlenecks in the vendor and service provider supply chain,” the NAB lobbied. The commission should also be willing to adjust deadlines based on a variety of factors, the industry organization said, and failing to do so may encourage broadcasters and their installer partners “to take undue risks” that could have tragic consequences.

“During the industry’s 3G rollout, carriers turned to contractors with insufficient training to speed deployment, leading to a spike in tower worker fatalities,” NAB executives wrote. “No one – broadcasters, wireless carriers or the Commission itself – should be eager to repeat this experiment in a futile effort to comply with an arbitrary and unrealistic deadline.”

CTIA took issue with the NAB’s arguments in its own filing (PDF), asserting that making the 600 MHz available for wireless use as quickly as possible is of paramount importance. But CTIA suggested that the regulatory agencies could assuage broadcasters’ fears by enabling them to use temporary facilities and forge temporary channel-sharing arrangements for those who can’t meet the deadline due to specific hurdles.

“The wireless industry is prepared to expend significant resources in the deployment and integration of 600 MHz spectrum into the mobile ecosystem. These efforts cannot commence until existing television broadcast use is transitioned out of the spectrum,” CTIA executives wrote in the filling. “This framework, with the additions and changes suggested in these comments, should ensure that the 39-month transition period for broadcasters is maintained and allow the wireless industry to commence operations in the 600 MHz band in a timely manner.”

Related: NAB blasts Wheeler’s ‘disingenuous’ statements on incentive auction repacking schedule

The NAB’s filing is just the latest salvo in a long-running debate over the FCC’s repacking timeline. T-Mobile said in June that extending the schedule “would impose grave harm on consumers” because it would delay carriers’ efforts to put the spectrum to use as quickly as possible. The Competitive Carriers Association also backs the FCC’s timeline: it said in January that the 39-month timeline is sufficient.

AT&T, meanwhile, has been less polarized on the issue. The No. 2 wireless carrier in the U.S. signaled in February that it would be willing to extend the deadline, and said that its top priority is to see a “realistic” schedule for repacking the airwaves. Stage 3 of the forward portion of the incentive auction kicked off Tuesday morning, and analysts said a likely fourth stage could drag the event into next year.