FCC’s Spectrum Auction Deadline Passes

What Is It? and Why Does It Matter?

The initial deadline passed this spring for broadcast television stations to notify the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) if they plan to take part in the broadcast inventive auction to reallocate a portion of the spectrum to wireless voice & data providers.

All wireless communications signals travel over the air via radio frequency, aka spectrum.  The TV broadcast you watch, the radio programs you listen to, the GPS device that helps get you where you’re going, and the wireless phone service you use to make phone calls and check Facebook from your smartphone — all use invisible airwaves to transmit bits of data through the air.

At the onset of wireless technology the FCC licensed the spectrum to everyone, professionals and amateurs alike. The spectrum for radio is FM and AM bands; for television is VHF or UHF.  No two stations transmit over the same spectrum at the same time in the same geographic area, because if they did, they’d cause interference with one another.  This is why your dad who is now retired and living in Florida can’t to tune on FM to listen to a Pacers radio broadcast from Indianapolis.  Mobile phones work much the same way. Wireless operators, such as AT&T and Verizon, cannot transmit wireless signals of voice or data over the same frequencies in the same markets at the same time.

Like frontier land in America’s “Wild West”, which was once so prevalent that it could literally be given away, wireless spectrum is now prime real estate.  There was plenty to go around and when broadcast technology was in its infancy, so there was little concern about running out. Networks like ABC and CBS were given spectrum, but so were government agencies like the Department of Defense, which still controls a large portion of radio spectrum. Smaller broadcasters, who operate on a local rather than a national level and primarily in rural areas, were also given spectrum access.

As technology advanced the amount of available spectrum is no longer enough to meet the demand. This is primarily driven by the proliferation of smartphones and the growing demand for wireless data so the FCC is going to act as a middleman to help facilitate the transfer of broadband spectrum from broadcasters to wireless providers to help feed their increasing demand.

Everyone agrees that cell phone companies need spectrum and it is possible to free up some by consolidating broadcast television stations and eliminating some altogether.  But “repacking” will be a consequence to some TV stations, forcing them to move to different channels.

This could have a significant impact on FM radio stations that share common towers or rooftops with one or more TV stations, because there could be a period of broadcasting disruption.  Even though radio stations’ web streaming is on the rise, but most listening still happens over-the-air.  And radio stations cannot scale streaming infrastructure to reach the audience penetration of terrestrial’s one-to-many delivery model.  For the FM broadcaster, it’s a big deal when the transmitter is off the air.

To track this developing story, stay tuned.

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