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AT&T Is On Broadcasters’ Side In Post-Auction Repacking

February 5, 2016 - Written By Daniel Fuller

With March’s spectrum auction growing ever closer and the stakes growing ever higher, questions are starting to come up about what happens after the auction. According to the FCC’s adopted plan, spectrum owners who were forced to give up their spectrum for the auction have 39 months to vacate it. 3 years and 3 months may seem like a long time, but consider the logistics involved; for each site, equipment must either be moved, dismantled or reprogrammed. Many spectrum owners have gone to the FCC saying that this schedule is unrealistic. Although it’s a bit ironic and may put them at odds with the other carriers in a rush to use their shiny new low-band spectrum, AT&T’s vice president of federal regulatory affairs, Joan Marsh, agrees with the spectrum owners and is asking for a more “realistic” repacking schedule.

According to rough calculations by AT&T, there will be 1,200 stations left after the auction and 30 percent of those if not less will be able to continue operating as they are now. This means the remaining stations must either move or cease operations. Most of the spectrum owners that will be giving up spectrum for the auction have hundreds if not thousands of individual sites nationwide that must be somehow taken care of. For example, let’s say a local cable network has 50 stations in each state of their market, perhaps 7 states. This kind of equipment changeover takes specialized technicians with specialized training. Normally, a given company will have less than a hundred such techs on staff. Hypothetically, if each station takes about 40 man hours to dismantle, a full work week for one person or a bit over a day for a team of four. In all likelihood, this means each station will take about 3 business days if not more, in total. You can see how quickly that can add up.

Marsh says that “There’s nothing in the record that supports the [39-month] number that was adopted by the FCC.” According to Patrick McFadden, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, “I don’t think it should be a controversial proposition that it will take longer to remove 1,300 stations than it will to move just 300 stations; and yet we’re in a position where we’ve had a deadline established without yet knowing the scope of the post-auction work,” All in all, things are looking uncertain for broadcasters, which could seriously complicate the repacking process. This may end up costing the wireless industry members bidding for the spectrum more time, and thus money, than simply having given the broadcasters a wider deadline.