CTB Networks responds to FCC broadband article


Greg Herman, EVP of Business Development for CTB Networks/Director of Industry Relations for CTB Spectrum Services, wanted to respond and expand upon our recent article, “How will the LPTVs affect the FCC’s proposed broadband plan?” Herman interlaced commentary within the article, in green:

CTB Networks is planning to build an advanced, low cost national IP converged media services delivery network in the US. “Building a wireless network based on 500 – 600 MHz range network access frequencies provides for superior range and in-building signal reception, resulting in economies in capital expenditures, and robust services,” says the company’s website. “Contracting with our technology vendor, ECSAGON LLC, we are deploying the first cellular digital transmission system for broadcasting services.”

The article, and Greg’s responses:
The Broadband Plan proposed by FCC staff is certainly going to be a debate going on for at least the next year. One of the primary issues will be the proposed “repacking” of the UHF band to free up the 120 mHz (20 channels). With only 30 UHF channels today, this would dramatically shrink the band. (channels 52-69 were relinquished with the DTV transition, and 14-19 were surrendered in some markets).

Although it is true that the television band has been officially reduced to the existing core channels of 2 – 51, a significant number of LPTV and TV Translator facilities are still operating on out-of-core channels.  Further reducing the amount of broadcast spectrum will make the challenge of finding an in-core channel for some broadcasters, even more difficult, if not impossible.

How will LPTV stations fit into this puzzle? Many are still analog.  LPTV stations are licensed as supplemental facilities, meaning that they are subject to displacement by full-power stations. During the DTV transition, the commission created a special category, Class A  status, to preserve and relocate low-power stations subject to eviction from their channels by changes at full-power stations.

LPTV stations are licensed as ‘secondary spectrum users’ and can, in fact be displaced by full power stations.  However, historically, such a displacement has meant that an LPTV facility would be required to find another channel in their market, but would not be precluded from continuing to broadcast in total.  Once again, if the FCC were to reduce the number of available broadcast channels and if they chose to authorize additional full power stations as well, it certainly seems that many LPTV stations would be destroyed in the process.

Just prior to the FCC’s assignment of a second channel to all full power stations to assist them with the digital transition, the Community Broadcasters Association, the Association formerly representing the LPTV Industry, successfully encouraged Congress to pass The LPTV Protection Act of 1999.  This Act created Class A television stations and created a vital protection for LPTV licensees, preventing the FCC from wiping them out during the full power DTV transition.  Subsequently, both Class A and LPTV stations have managed to co-exist with their full power brethren but, any reduction in spectrum available for broadcasting could deal the LPTV Industry a serious blow. 

This repacking, as proposed as by the FCC staffers, will lead to a future issue: What happens to the LP’s? An interesting twist on this is the vast majority of LP stations now and for the foreseeable future (from a business model), even if they slowly transition to digital, only have a single program channel — and likely will need only one for the foreseeable future. Many of these stations are local talent or are picking up foreign language material—almost all of which are available in the standard definition technical format (no need for HD).  As these stations migrate, does it become worthwhile for a full-power licensee to start granting or leasing an entire sub-channel to them? It would also allow them to clear up any lingering claims they might have to the spectrum for proposed broadband purchasers.

The LPTV Industry is populated by some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial broadcasters in America.  In markets both large and small, they continue to provide niche programming services, including: foreign language and religious programming, and are often the only source for local news, information and emergency alerts to their viewers.   Class A and LPTV stations which have already converted to digital have embraced the opportunity to provide both high definition programming and have even innovated to the extent that some are experimenting with broadcast of up to 12 unique programming streams, including audio channels. 

Any suggestion that these stations could be accommodated by a full power station within their market, assuming there even is one, is improbable at best, and perhaps impossible to accomplish.  Further, as most Class A and LPTV broadcasters are fiercely entrepreneurial small businesses who often own their own towers and broadcast infrastructure, the suggestion that they should now be forced to lease bandwidth from a competitor borders on the absurd.

Right now, the full-power broadcaster has exclusive rights to that 6-mHz channel spectrum. There is no requirement to lease it out to in-market LPTVs. There might be some real money for broadcasters. LPTVs might have some cash (“go-away”, liquidated, damages money) to be paid to give up the spectrum that broadband companies want now. They would still keep their programming on one of a full-power local station’s multicast channels.

The ability for the federal government to intelligently reclaim spectrum from the small but valiant LPTV Industry, in a way which even approaches an ‘efficient process’, is highly doubtful.  Further, speculating as to what compensation may be offered to the LPTV Industry in exchange for their spectrum is extremely hard to project.  The LPTV Industry is proud to have the highest level of both female and minority ownership of all media outlets.  These broadcasters offer some of the most diverse programming choices available anywhere.  What price would government place on the destruction of these small businesses?  In essence, they would be forced to be subject to uncontrolled lease fees by struggling full power stations looking to replace shrinking revenues. How would communities be served by terminating the opportunity for LPTV broadcasters to manage and operate their own transmitters?  Doing so simply reduces the inherent redundancy which multiple broadcast operators in a given community provide.  Often times, it is the LPTV broadcaster who is the last off the air and/or first back on the air after a natural disaster.

Broadcasting remains the most efficient method to transmit information to a vast number of people. 

It may be also possible to shoe-horn in or consolidate the existing full-power over-the air broadcasters into a reduced footprint and free-up 20 channels. It’s theoretically possible because during the DTV transition period, for example, every station was in effect broadcasting on two channels.

Anyway, food for thought as this all unfolds…

The idea of taking spectrum away from minority and female owners of small businesses and ultimately auctioning that spectrum off to large companies who will be the only ones who can afford it, does a tremendous disservice to our country.  Perhaps before such heavy-handed measures are inflicted upon LPTV broadcasters, the government may be well advised to consider aiding the LPTV Industry with flexible use of their spectrum, a less oppressive regulatory environment and perhaps even financial incentives which could serve to propel these diverse, small businesses forward and help them to achieve a new level of innovation and prosperity in their service as stewards  of America’s airwaves to the populations they serve.

–Greg Herman can be reached at [email protected]