Broadcaster Lawsuit Could Delay FCC Wireless Spectrum Auction

NEWS ANALYSIS: Broadcasters cry foul over plans to relocate and repackage broadcast channels, claiming reduced access to audiences.

FCC Spectrum Auction

The National Association of Broadcasters has filed suit in federal court in an effort to force the Federal Communications Commission to revise the rules for the 2015 spectrum auction.

That auction would transfer access to some portions of the radio spectrum currently used for television broadcasts to wireless service providers. The spectrum auction includes two parts, a reverse auction for existing spectrum held by broadcasters and another for the spectrum that's freed up that would go to the wireless companies.

The reverse auction would allow broadcasters to give up the spectrum they use in exchange for a cash buyout. Those broadcasters would then go off the air on the relinquished spectrum, making their frequencies available for sale to wireless companies.

Broadcasters that do not accept a buyout would then be "repackaged," which means the FCC would change the frequencies over which they broadcast. The portions of the spectrum thus freed up could then be auctioned off to wireless companies.

When Congress passed the law that authorized the spectrum auctions and frequency repackaging, it specifically required the FCC to ensure that broadcasters are not hurt by the changes. Congress also established a fund to pay for the costs of spectrum relocations. This is necessary because changing the broadcast frequency of a television station is expensive and could require a station to buy new transmitters and antennas.

The NAB, while saying that it does not intend to delay the spectrum auction, also requests the federal courts to order the FCC to change the methodology the agency plans to use in determining whether broadcasters would lose coverage area or population when things change.

"Unfortunately, the FCC order oversteps congressional mandate and is likely to cause significant harm to broadcast television," said NAB executive vice president Rick Kaplan in a prepared statement.

As you might expect, not everyone agrees with the NAB. "We continue to believe that the incentive auction will be a win for broadcasters, wireless companies and consumers, and that the FCC’s order strikes the right balance to ensure that consumers emerge as winners," said CTIA vice president Scott Bergmann in a statement.

"While we would prefer to work together collaboratively to address NAB’s concerns rather than resort to litigation, we are hopeful the court addresses these issues quickly and that the NAB adheres to its commitment for an expedited process without unnecessary delays."

The Consumer Electronics Association also came out in support of the FCC action. "It is discouraging to see the broadcast television industry reject the FCC’s carefully crafted compromises. Litigating against the incentive auction undermines and delays innovation," said CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro in a prepared statement.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...