Congress Makes Sweeping Changes to Spectrum Policy; Authorizes TV Band Incentive Auctions

On Friday, overwhelming majorities of both the House and the Senate passed a payroll extension bill that includes important changes to spectrum policy.  The legislation is expected to raise $15 billion for the Federal Treasury and to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. The details of the legislation are now delegated to the NTIA, the FCC and other agencies to develop reports and to adopt rules to implement Congress' objectives. 

Below is our take on some of the main provisions of the legislation as it applies to spectrum policy and wireless broadband services. 

Incentive Auctions and Band Clearing

Aside from public safety, the main driver of spectrum legislation was the need to address the spectrum crunch (real or imagined) for mobile wireless interests. To do this, Congress decided to offer TV broadcasters compensation to voluntarily relinquish their spectrum for repurposing by the FCC for broadband uses. Congress granted specific authority for a two-phase voluntary "incentive auction" that would clear a portion of the TV band (Channels 2-51) for mobile interests and, as part of that process, change the TV "white space" landscape. Because Channel 51 is adjacent to the Lower 700 MHz A Block (formerly Channel 52), the FCC is expected to attempt to "re-pack" the TV stations into the lower portion of the UHF band (beginning with Channel 14). The auction process is expected to take several years.

Under the legislation's language, "relinquishment" of a TV station means (1) relinquishing all usage rights to a channel, (2) relinquishing a UHF channel for a VHF channel, or (3) sharing a channel with another TV station. In lieu of relocation reimbursement, TV stations can obtain, as appropriate, a waiver of FCC rules to make flexible use of their spectrum so long as the TV broadcaster provides at least one programming stream at no charge. Depending on how the FCC ultimately interprets this provision, TV broadcasters could obtain a limited right to offer broadband on their spectrum alongside video service, but only if they forego relocation reimbursement.

Significantly, the FCC is required to reallocate and auction the T-Band (470-512 MHz, i.e., Channels 14-20) used by public safety in 11 major markets, with the spectrum sale used to cover relocation costs. Although not stated in the legislation, the FCC can also clear other users -- land mobile, for instance -- out of the TV bands. The FCC also can relocate radioastronomy users on Channel 37 at a cost of up to $300 million. The ability to relocate Channel 37 users could be a significant band-clearing opportunity because that channel operates as a nationwide encumbrance in the heart of the TV band.

TV White Spaces

Early House Majority versions of the bill would have required the FCC to auction all unlicensed spectrum (though it was unclear whether this included white space spectrum that had previously been allocated). The version of the legislation that passed essentially creates two flavors of white space.

  • First, the existing TV white space and the TV white space remaining after the re-packing -- remember, that's several years away -- will be available for fixed and mobile wireless use. There will no doubt be a loss of TV white space in many markets as a result of the incentive auction, but Congress and FCC staff expect that there will vacant TV channels will remain in many rural areas after the re-packing. The re-allocation of Channels 14-20 will create additional spectrum in major markets for TV stations to relocate, and the possible relocation of Channel 37 radioastronomy users will also clear spectrum.
  • Second, the FCC has the discretion to use relinquished spectrum or other spectrum to implement guard bands that would, in practice, create a nationwide unlicensed allocation as recommended in the National Broadband Plan. The FCC may "permit" the use of guard band for unlicensed use, but is not required to, and the guard bands must "be no larger than is technically reasonable to prevent harmful interference between licensed services outside the guard bands." (Reports were that earlier versions of the bill used the phrase "technically necessary.") Based on our discussions with the FCC, they see a guard band acting as a "duplex gap" band between LTE-Advanced uplink/downlink spectrum allocations, though this thinking is only preliminary and the ultimate band plan, channel sizes and technical rules will be determined through an FCC rulemaking proceeding. The limits of the FCC's discretion on guard bands appear to be subject to interpretation.

3550-3650 MHz

Earlier versions of both the Senate and House bills would have required the FCC to auction the 3550-3650 MHz band (with certain exceptions). The band is not allocated for commercial use; rather, the Department of Defense uses it at present. The final version removed the auction mandate, but requires NTIA to give priority to options involving exclusive non-Federal use and to choose sharing only if NTIA and OMB determine that relocation of a Federal user is not feasible because of technical or cost constraints. Thus, the 3550-3650 MHz band could be subject to auction ("exclusive use") unless it is not feasible to relocate Federal users.  If that's the case, commercial and Federal users could share the band under technical rules the FCC would adopt. The radar uses in the 3550-3650 MHz band may be difficult to relocate, which would make the case for shared unlicensed use easier.

Other Unlicensed Bands

The spectrum legislation identifies two additional bands for possible unlicensed use. First, NTIA, the Department of Defense and other agencies will study spectrum-sharing and risks to incumbent Federal users if unlicensed U-NII devices were allowed to operate in the 5350-5470 MHz and 5850-5925 MHz bands – a total of 195 MHz of spectrum. The agencies will issue reports on their findings. The report for the 5350-5470 MHz band is due in eight months, and the report on the 5850-5925 MHz band is due in 18 months.

Wireless Facilities Deployment

An under-appreciated section of the bill provides significant benefits to wireless companies, fixed and mobile, that want access to towers owned by state and local governments. Under the legislation, a local government must approve an "eligible facilities request" to modify an existing wireless tower or base station that does not "substantially change" the physical dimensions of the tower or base station. An "eligible facilities request" is a request to collocate new transmission equipment, remove transmission equipment or replace transmission equipment. The FCC will decide how to interpret "substantial change" pursuant to a rulemaking proceeding. In addition, GSA is required to develop master contracts for wireless antenna structures on property owned by the Federal government.


The new spectrum legislation is a beginning, not an end. Many details have yet to be determined, but many interests – including broadband providers, whether fixed or mobile, broadcasters, public safety users and others -- can find something to like in the new legislation.

The Uncertainty of Unlicensed: New Threat Posed by House Draft Legislation

Yesterday, Steve Coran presented a webinar to members of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) on spectrum reform legislation that is being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives.  The presentation focused on provisions addressing the future of unlicensed spectrum allocation, with discussion on a novel and untested auction concept that would require bidders wanting non-exclusive rules to bid against licensees wanting licensed rules for the same spectrum.  Steve commented that this is "untried and untested, and unlikely to raise significant revenues in light of the uncertainty the rules would raise."  Steve urged the WISPA members to participate in the advocacy effort by communicating with their representatives.

Don't Change that Channel: FCC Takes Steps to Transition TV Stations ... Again

Effective immediately, the Federal Communications Commission will no longer accept rulemaking petitions for TV stations to change their licensed channels. This is unfortunate news for stations who are still studying ways to improve free local over-the-air DTV service. 

Today’s announcement comes after the FCC staff’s completion of nearly 100 channel changes since lifting its filing freeze on May 30, 2008. FCC staff apparently believes that licensees have had sufficient time to evaluate engineering options and presumes there is no pent-up demand for channel changes. Such speculation might have been avoided if instead of an immediate freeze, a short filing window was established to permit filings for channel changes before the freeze became effective. 

FCC staff indicates that the freeze is necessary to facilitate the re-packing and reallocation of portions of the TV Band for broadband services, as recommended in the National Broadband Plan. While the FCC lacks authority to conduct incentive auctions, it may re-pack the TV band to create more spectrum for wireless broadband. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski signaled his interest in repacking the TV band in his April 12, 2011 remarks at the NAB Show. FCC staff has been doing a road show around the country promoting the benefits of incentive auctions, so this action comes as no great surprise. 

What is becoming clear is that TV stations should begin contemplating a second DTV transition and the possibility of changing channels yet again. In the meantime, FCC staff has taken a step toward minimizing the number of moving parts in this transition by making sure that TV stations stay put, for now. 

For more information, don’t change that channel …

FCC's New Rules for Rural AM and FM Radio Service Make Waves but Miss the Mark

The Federal Communications Commission’s job description includes the responsibility to implement rules and procedures for awarding new broadcast stations and for permitting incumbent AM and FM stations to relocate their facilities, and by extension, their service areas.  The FCC recently revised its criteria for selecting among competing proposals for new AM stations, new FM allotments and FM stations seeking to change their community of license. The new rules fall short of providing broadcasters with the necessary flexibility to relocate radio stations where they will provide the maximum service to the public. 

Section 307(b) of the Communications Act requires the FCC to make a fair, efficient and equitable distribution of radio service.  In discharging this obligation when awarding new AM or FM stations or approving community-of-license changes, the FCC relies upon four priorities for selecting among competing proposals: 

  • (1) first fulltime aural (reception) service;
  • (2) second fulltime aural service;
  • (3) first local (transmission) service; and
  • (4) other public interest matters. 

The FCC gives equal consideration to Priorities (2) and (3), and competing parties who propose the highest priority service or, if the priorities are equal, propose service to the larger community or population, will be entitled to a preference for their proposed station or communityThe FCC is concerned that reliance upon these priorities has caused the FCC to favor urbanized areas – at the expense of smaller communities or rural areas – when granting new AM stations, new FM allotments and community of license changes.  Under the new rules, the FCC will de-emphasize population differences as a principal metric in awarding Section 307(b) preferences in favor of a “more realistic” evaluation of the totality of the station’s proposed service.  The FCC will emphasize that the goal of Section 307(b) is to prevent excessive concentration of radio service in larger cities. To the FCC, Section 307(b) essentially is a listener-centric consumer statute rather than a broadcaster-centric mandate designed to promote spectral efficiency.

Revised Priority 3 Showing: First Local Service in A Community Located Near an Urbanized Area.  The most important change to the FCC’s rules is the rebuttable presumption that any proposal for first local service (Priority 3) for a community near an urbanized area that could place a principal community contour signal over at least 50% the urbanized area, or could be modified to place such coverage, will be presumed to serve the entire urbanized area rather than the proposed community.  This presumption may be rebutted by a compelling showing:  (1) that the proposed community is truly independent of the urbanized area; (2) of the community’s specific need for an outlet for local expression separate from the urbanized area; and (3) the ability of the proposed station to provide that outlet. 

The required showing can be based on the existing three-prong test established in Faye & Richard Tuck:  (1) the degree to which the proposed station will provide coverage to the urbanized area; (2) the size and proximity of the proposed community to the central city of the urbanized area; and (3) the interdependence of the proposed community of license and the urbanized area.  The FCC has heightened the scrutiny of factors in support of the third prong.  For example, applicants must submit evidence of the number of local residents who work in the community, not merely extrapolations from commute times or listing local business in the community.  Similarly, the application must include evidence that the community’s residents perceive themselves as separate and distinct from the urbanized area, rather than statements to that effect from town officials or business leaders.  In addition to demonstrating independence, a compelling showing sufficient to rebut the urbanized area presumption must also include evidence of the community’s need for an outlet of local expression.  Examples could include the community’s rate of growth, the existence of substantial local government necessitating coverage, and physical, geographical or cultural barriers separating the community from the remainder of the urbanized area. 

Revised Public Interest Showing (Priority 4).  In determining whether a proposed allotment betters serves the purposes of Section 307(b) under Priority (4), the FCC will look favorably upon proposals emphasizing service to underserved areas; i.e., those receiving fewer than five aural services.  A proposal to provide service to a third, fourth and/or fifth aural service to at least 25% of the population in the proposed primary service area, provided the proposed community of license has two or fewer local transmission services, will receive a dispositive Section 307(b) preference under Priority (4). 

The table below compares the rule changes for Priority 3 and Priority 4 for proposals for new AM services, for new FM services and for changes in communities of license: 


Priority 3

(first local transmission service)

Priority 4

(other public interest matters)





New AM Service Applicant

Station proposing 1st local service presumed to serve Urbanized Area (“UA”) if contour covered at least 50% of the UA; rebuttable by Tuck showing.

Greater presumption of service to UA; more detailed Tuck showing now required.

Could establish P4 by gains in areas and population and/or more than de minimis service to underserved areas.

Must propose a 3rd, 4th or 5th reception service to at least 25% of the population within the proposed primary service area. The community of license must have two or fewer local transmission services.

Can demonstrate P4 by gains in area and population but only if there are no underserved areas.

New FM Service Applicant

Station proposing 1st local service presumed to serve UA if contour covered at least 50% of the UA; rebuttable by Tuck showing.

Greater presumption of service to UA; more detailed Tuck showing now required.

Could establish P4 by gains in areas and population and/or more than de minimis service to underserved areas.

Must propose a 3rd, 4th or 5th reception service to more than a de minimis population within the proposed primary service area.

Can demonstrate P4 by gains in area and population but only if there are no underserved areas.

Petitioner for Change in Community of License

Station proposing 1st local service presumed to serve UA if contour covered at least 50% of the UA; rebuttable by Tuck showing.


Greater presumption of service to UA; more detailed Tuck showing now required.

Acceptable P4 showings could include gains in areas and population and/or more than de minimis service to underserved areas.

Proposal may not create a white or grey area. 

High bar to proposals that create an underserved area to more than 15% of the population or seek removal of a second local service from a community with a population of 7,500 or greater.

Must propose a 3rd, 4th or 5th reception service to at least 25% of the population within the proposed primary service area.

Can demonstrate P4 by gains in area and population but only if there are no underserved areas.

Proposals for New AM Service.  In considering competing proposals to provide new AM service, the FCC will apply the new rebuttable presumption of service to an urbanized area along with the revised Priority (4) showing. The determination of whether a proposal could cover 50% or more of an urbanized area will be limited to a consideration of minor modifications to the proposal, without changing the proposed antenna configuration or site, and the spectrum availability as of the close of the filing window.  If the FCC cannot make a 307(b) determination among competing applicants using these criteria, the FCC will make the selection using an auction process.  The FCC will not apply these new procedures to pending applications for new AM stations and major modifications to AM stations filed in the 2004 AM Auction 84 filing window.  The FCC will however apply these new procedures to any other pending applications.

Proposals for new FM Allotments.  In considering competing proposals for new FM service, the FCC will apply the new rebuttable presumption of service to an urbanized area along with the revised Priority (4) showing provided coverage is to more than a de minimis population.  The determination of whether a proposal could cover 50% or more of an urbanized area is more expansive for new FM allotments than new AM allotments.  The applicant must certify that there are no existing towers in the area to which, at the time of filing, the applicant’s antenna could be relocated pursuant to a minor modification application to serve 50% or more of the urbanized area.  If the revised Priority (4) does not apply, then the FCC considers raw population totals in support of Priority (4).  These new rules will not apply to any non-final FM allotment proceedings, including “hybrid” coordinated application/allotment proceedings.  The revised procedures will apply to all pending petitions to amend the FM Table of Allotments and to all other open FM allotment proceedings and non-final FM allotment orders. 

Proposals to Change Community of License.  The FCC’s strictest requirements will apply to existing broadcast stations seeking to change their community of license.  The FCC will apply the rebuttable presumption of service to an urbanized area along with the revised Priority (4) showing.  Proposals that would create a white or grey area would be prohibited.  The FCC would strongly disfavor any change that would result in the net loss of a third, fourth or fifth reception service to more than 15% of the population in the station’s current protected contour.  Applicants must not only set forth the size of the populations gaining and losing service but also the number of services those populations will receive if the application is granted and an explanation of how the proposal advances the revised Section 307(b) priorities.  The FCC will strongly disfavor any proposed removal of a second or local transmission service from a community of substantial size (with a population of 7,500 or greater).  These procedures will apply to any pending applications to change community of license. 

The FCC’s new procedures have several problems.  First, the agency presumes a problem where none exists in light of existing protections against the migration of radio stations from rural to urban markets.  New and existing stations have limitations on their ability to migrate into urbanized areas due to the FCC’s technical rules relating to mileage separation, city-of-license coverage, prohibitions against removing a sole first local service from a community, and restrictions on the filing of contingent applications. 

Moreover, the FCC does not consider the population of the urbanized area in adopting its new policies.  An “urbanized” area can have as few as 50,000 people but is treated under the rules the same way as one with hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people.  The technical and policy restrictions already in place make it extremely difficult for an existing or new station to be located in one of the larger urban markets.  The new policies now will make it extremely difficult to relocate stations to the smaller or newer urbanized markets. The FCC also does not consider the population migration that has occurred over the past several decades.  Instead, the FCC would seem to prefer to lock radio stations in to their current communities, restricting a station’s ability to improve their service to better serve the public.  It is ironic that in adopting its policies for expanding broadband service, the FCC seeks to reclaim spectrum under the guise of promoting spectrum efficiency but in its new rules implicitly reject spectrum efficiency as an important objective for broadcast services. 

The FCC does not hide its preference for auctioning broadcast spectrum to the highest bidder instead of placing greater emphasis on Section 307(b) determinations.  The auction process works against the FCC’s goals of increasing broadcast ownership by minority and females. Further, the FCC fails to consider the considerable time between the initial proposal for a new AM or FM broadcast station and the auction of the station – a time lapse where changed economic conditions and business plans can affect construction and operation of the new station.  Case in point: Auction 91 will auction 144 new FM station construction permits, 37 of which are holdovers from the prior auction where no winning bid was placed.  This underscores the lack of interest of certain allotments made to rural areas. 

The FCC’s new procedures also are tilted against relocating new or existing radio stations near or within urbanized areas.  Concerned with the alleged migration of new and existing radio stations from rural markets to urbanized markets, the FCC creates roadblocks and imposes high costs for parties interested in a station near or within an urbanized area.  The new Tuck showings impose a financial burden that will deter many applicants from proceeding. 

In short, the new rules represent a missed opportunity to adopt a balanced approach between serving rural and urbanized areas.  Broadcasters must have the flexibility to go where the people go.  Sadly, the FCC’s new policies work against the public’s interest.

Act Now! FCC to Auction New FM Radio Stations

Less than one month remains until the close of the filing window to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s upcoming auction of 144 FM broadcast construction permits to the public.  The auction is scheduled to begin on April 27, 2011.  Applicants interested in participating in the auction must file an application with the FCC between January 31, 2011 and February 10, 2011.

The construction permits are associated with so-called “vacant” FM allotments. The FCC has assigned certain FM channels to certain communities via allotment, and the FCC will auction the rights to build FM radio facilities using these channels.  Of the 144 vacant FM allotments in this auction, 37 are holdovers from the last FM auction.  This means that no party placed the minimum bid for these vacant allotments before the last auction closed. The minimum bid for the majority of the allotments is $25,000 or less.  Only 14 of the allotments have minimum bids of at least $60,000. Seven allotments have minimum bids of $100,000. Three allotments have minimum bids of $60,000 and four allotments have minimum bids of $75,000.

The application must include ownership information about the applicant; identify the vacant allotments for which the applicant intends to bid, and whether the applicant has any agreements with other parties regarding the auction.  Under the FCC’s anti-collusion rules, applicants are prohibited from discussing their applications, including bidding strategies, with other applicants in the auction, unless each applicant identifies the other in their application.  This prohibition applies to each applicant until the auction is closed.

Time is of the essence.  Although the auction is more than three months away, interested parties must file their applications for the auction by February 10.  These applications are not placeholders for the auction; the application locks in the applicant’s qualifications to bid in the auction, identifies the allotments on which the applicant may bid, and any bidding arrangements applicants might have with third parties.  Applicants will not be able to amend their applications after February 10 to improve their situation in the auction.  Advance preparation now is necessary.

Incentive Auctions of TV Spectrum for Broadband May End Up Not So Voluntary

The FCC has begun its long anticipated rule making proceeding to reallocate 120 MHz of TV spectrum from wireless broadcast to wireless broadband services. Just a few days ago, the Commission voted 5-0 to consider three different approaches for reclaiming this spectrum, relying mostly on voluntary participation by TV broadcasters who wonder openly how truly voluntary this process will be if not enough TV stations agree to trade spectrum for cash and possibly, a smaller slice of shared spectrum to continue broadcasting.

The first approach is to encourage broadcasters to return 120 MHz of spectrum to be auctioned for wireless broadband service, with broadcasters receiving some portion of the auction proceeds. These incentive auctions would require Congressional approval. The second approach is adoption of rules to encourage two or more television stations to share the same 6 MHz TV channel. The third approach is adoption of new engineering rules to improve the VHF band with the hope that some television broadcasters would relinquish their stations in the UHF band in exchange for stations in the VHF band. The FCC likely will order TV spectrum auction winners to pay the costs to repack the TV Band to clear contiguous blocks of spectrum to auction.

Broadcasters are less than enthusiastic about the third approach because of concerns about impulse noise from electrical power lines, signal quality issues in the VHF band and the costs associated with moving a station from the UHF to the VHF band. The Commission believes the continued growth and importance of wireless broadband services requires allocation of spectrum from other services. The Commission has identified television broadcast spectrum as the most suitable candidate, arguing that television broadcasters do not use their spectrum efficiently, that less than 10% of the nation receives broadcast television through over-the-air reception and that broadcasters will still have 300 MHz of spectrum remaining after the FCC takes away and auctions the reclaimed spectrum.

TV stations question whether the Commission’s proposals will degrade the quality of HD signals because shared spectrum is insufficient to broadcast in HD. It is unclear what costs TV stations would have to bear (and in this economy, the costs of the auction transaction itself could be daunting). There is also fear that this approach could undermine the legal basis for the must carry/retransmission regime. Fundamentally, many question the necessity of reclaiming that much spectrum, pointing out that the demand for spectrum is greatest in the largest metropolitan markets where TV stations are not likely to voluntarily participate in auctions. The quickest path to freeing up more spectrum for broadband applications would be to give broadcasters more flexibility to use their spectrum for broadband services by reforming the technical rules and allowing secondary leasing rules to govern rather than the outmoded command and control model now favored by FCC regulators only with respect to broadcasting.

In an ironic twist, broadband providers are now touting the benefits of a “broadcast type” service over broadcast spectrum. This is allegedly the most efficient use of spectrum to deliver video programming consumers are demanding in greater numbers. At the end of the day, broadcasters are expected to go along with the proposals so long as they are truly “voluntary.” As anyone who has negotiated voluntary conditions as part of an FCC merger review knows, some things in DC are more voluntary than others.


STELA! FCC Implements Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act

Following the passage by Congress earlier this year of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA, for short), the FCC adopted new rules to provide satellite subscribers with greater flexibility to receive certain television stations from other markets.

The FCC revised its rules to make it easier for satellite subscribers to receive a significantly viewed (SV) out-of-market station. Previously, satellite subscribers could receive an out-of-market SV station with the same network affiliation as the local in-market station only if the satellite subscribers received the local in-market network station. Now satellite subscribers need only receive the satellite carrier’s local-into-local service package.

These changes may tilt retransmission consent negotiations in favor of the satellite carriers, who could favor an out-of-market SV station to the in-market station based on the amount of retransmission consent fees that are negotiated. Many broadcasters have entered into agreements that provide for little or no compensation for out-of-market subscribers.

The FCC reasons that subscribers would prefer receiving the in-market station to the out-of-market SV station, that satellite carriers will negotiate in good faith with in-market stations, and that SV stations usually are available only in a portion of the market. Time will tell, but there is good reason to be skeptical. Satellite carriers will inevitably use SV stations as a substitute, instead of a supplement, to an in-market station if any disputes arise about compensation for retransmission consent. If this happens, broadcast localism goals of the FCC will be undermined and Congress may be called back to the table to clean up the mess.

The FCC must deliver to Congress a report on in-state broadcast programming by August 27, 2011. The FCC seeks comment and data from the public in preparing this report.