2/20 FCC Comments with Public Knowledge Opposing Allocating Vacant TVWS Channels for the Next Gen TV Transition

New America's Open Technology Institute filed comments with Public Knowledge to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opposing a proposal to give broadcasters access to vacant channels to facilitate the transition to ATSC 3.0. OTI and PK explained that broadcasters have already told the FCC on the record that they do not require any additional spectrum to complete the transition to the new transmission standard, and that giving away access to TV White Spaces would undo the efforts of organizations and companies using those bands to bring broadband access to unserved rural areas. A summary and introduction is copy and pasted below:

Contrary to the channel-sharing framework the Commission adopted in the Report & Order – which incentivizes local stations to partner and use two (or more) channels more intensively – giving stations exclusive use of a second free channel would promote an inefficient use of the resource, even as it disrupts other users in the band (e.g., low power TV and unlicensed uses, including wireless microphones). A multi-billion dollar giveaway would discourage channel sharing and encourage broadcasters to grab and warehouse as much spectrum as they can, investing instead in the lobbying needed to eventually monetize the spectrum. 

The broadcast industry‟s initial petition for rulemaking and subsequent filings expressly assured the Commission and other users of the band that no additional spectrum would be needed for the transition to ATSC 3.0. Sinclair and ONE Media started asking for access to the vacant channels only after the change in administrations. This marked a significant bait-andswitch from NAB et al.’s original claims that no additional spectrum would be required. 

Sinclair and ONE Media have tried to dress up their request for new public subsidies by falsely claiming that exclusive use of an additional vacant channel will “ensure maximum continuity of service.” Assigning local broadcasters exclusive use of additional channels is not even remotely necessary to achieve this goal. Stations are not required to simulcast every 1.0 stream; only their primary stream and only in standard definition (which requires only a fraction of the capacity of a six megahertz channel). Because the R&O gives stations the flexibility to downgrade their 1.0 signal from high definition (HD) to standard definition (SD) to facilitate channel sharing, there is no justification for a multi-billion dollar giveaway that simply substitutes for a capability that broadcasters have already made clear is nice but not needed.

The same broadcasting interests that advocated for the new ATSC 3.0 standard to move forward as a voluntary transition that requires no additional spectrum now apparently feel empowered to use the pretense of protecting consumers as a basis for the Commission to rationalize a multi-billion dollar windfall. The opposite is true: Awarding exclusive use of vacant TV band spectrum to full-power broadcast licensees would harm consumers by effectively foreclosing the public‟s unlicensed access to the vacant channels for rural broadband and other innovative services. White Spaces technology is already in use across the country and generating compelling public interest benefits. Gifting the vacant channels to broadcast licensees would halt ongoing deployments, harming consumers and particularly Americans living in rural and underserved areas who could otherwise have both over-the-air TV and broadband connectivity from an operator utilizing the unique characteristics of TV White Space channels. Our comments describe just some of the many projects deployed or planned that leverage the unique properties of low-band unlicensed spectrum to bring affordable broadband to unserved and underserved areas. Closing off unlicensed broadband deployment and wireless innovation would deepen the digital divide and undermine the robust investment that has already gone into these projects. 

The Sinclair/ONE Media proposal also clearly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Communications Act. Section 309(j) and well-established principles of modern spectrum policy require an auction for wide-area, exclusive-use spectrum. This avoids the inevitable moral hazard and inefficient warehousing of valuable spectrum associated with government giveaways. Any comparison to the Congressionally-mandated DTV transition is inapt. Moreover, Sinclair‟s claim that a second channel giveaway would be “temporary” is also entirely beside the point: Without Congressional approval, there is no exemption from Section 309(j) on the basis that an incumbent would like a “temporary” doubling of their exclusive spectrum assignment.