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White Spaces, The Incentive Auction and What It Means to You

1-20-14 UPDATE: The FCC has delayed the incentive auction until 2015. Read the latest in our interview with Mark Brunner.


  • What’s the buzz?
  • What is it?
  • When does it happen?
  • What are the effects on wireless users?

Just when we all adjusted to 2009’s FCC regulations involving the use of wireless microphones and mobile devices in the TV band, along comes a new wrinkle: the incentive auction.  This is not, repeat not, cause for alarm.  In this post, we’ll break it down into its simplest elements – explain the basic concept, survey the changing landscape, share the expected timeline and diffuse some common misunderstandings about how a spectrum change is likely to affect you and your wireless gear.

The FCC is under intense pressure to reallocate even more spectrum for mobile broadband. The rising popularity of smartphones and tablets has placed an additional strain on the currently available spectrum.  Consider, for example, the fact that smartphones use 35 times more spectrum than traditional cell phones and tablets use 121 times as much.  So the FCC is looking for innovative ways to open up additional spectrum, with the loftier goal of “spurring economic growth and maintaining the country’s mobile leadership.” Legislators are aware of these issues and recently took action to address them.

The bill granting special authority to the FCC was signed into law on February 2012.  It gave them permission to launch a one-time incentive auction that will repurpose some of the broadcast television spectrum. The basic premise is pretty simple: broadcast stations can elect to give up some of their assigned spectrum (either by moving to a different channel, sharing a channel with another station, or going off the air entirely) and offer them, through the FCC, to the highest bidder.  When the incentive auction is complete, the FCC will reallocate the cleared portion of the TV band spectrum to the auction winners.

How it Works. Courtesy: FCC LEARN site

How it Works. Courtesy: FCC LEARN site

Forward, Reverse and Repacking

Here are some terms you are likely to run across in coverage of the incentive auction.

Reverse Auction

The reverse auction is where broadcasters will establish their price to voluntarily relinquish spectrum rights in exchange for a portion of the proceeds from the forward auction.

Forward Auction

The forward auction is where the potential users of repurposed spectrum bid for new flexible-use licenses. The FCC is familiar with forward auctions in the spectrum context, and has been conducting them for nearly two decades.

Repacking

Repacking involves assigning channels to the broadcast television stations that remain on the air after the incentive auction… This process considers only a reassignment of channels, not geographic moves of stations; however, a station that opts to channel-share may have to move its antenna to a new geographic location – i.e., its sharing partner’s tower.

NRPM

This is the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that forces government agencies (FAA, FCC, EPA for instance) to listen to comments and concerns of people whom the regulation will likely affect. The Notice detailing the FCC’s options for the auctioning of TV band spectrum “Expanding the Economic and Innovation Opportunities of Spectrum Through Incentive Auctions” runs 200 pages and included milestones shown in the timetable below.

Incentive Auction Timeline. Courtesy: FCC LEARN site

Incentive Auction Timeline. Courtesy: FCC LEARN site

The Major Players

Wireless carriers are the primary proponents of the repack and auction plan, and, as the forward auction bidders, will be the likely beneficiaries.  Not to be overlooked is a profit opportunity for TV stations and the government. Some of the auction proceeds (estimated at approximately $25 billion) will be shared with TV stations participating in the reverse auction, some will be used to build a nationwide public safety communications network in the 700 MHz Band, and costs incurred to broadcasters from repacking will have to be reimbursed. The remainder of the proceeds will be deposited in the U.S. Treasury.

On the other side, the tech industry – Google, Microsoft, the WiFi Alliance, among others – cite the danger of putting power in the hands of a very few, very large companies who can afford to license their slice of the spectrum and use it for only those devices and services they market.  This group believes that free and open access stimulates innovation, investment, and job creation, as companies of all sizes develop new products and services.  They are lobbying for portions of the Band to be set aside for unlicensed use — similar to the allocation of the 2.4 GHz band for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and the recent White Spaces initiative.

Professional audio interests, from trade organizations such as the National Association of Broadcasters to the country’s major sports leagues to the largest content producers, speak to the impact on wireless microphone users.  These entities remain vocal in their position that they have recently given up over 100 MHz of spectrum during the 700 MHz band reallocation, and that wireless microphone operation in the TV Band must be protected going forward.

http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7022130172

http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7022130256

Shure is at the forefront of efforts to maintain adequate spectrum for professional audio and is actively involved in the Incentive Auctions proceeding.

How It Affects the Wireless Microphone User Today

Since there’s a risk of confusion for wireless users, Shure Notes asked Chris Lyons, who has been leading training sessions at Shure on the general subject of spectrum issues, for his insights.

Which spectrum will be auctioned?

The FCC has suggested a few different sections of spectrum for the auction.  The most likely is a section in the upper part of the existing TV band, beginning at TV channel 51 and extending downward.  How much spectrum is auctioned depends on how many TV stations volunteer to participate, which will likely vary in different cities.

When will the auction take place?

The FCC hopes to conduct the auction in 2014, but has not announced a specific date.  Commissioners have stated clearly that this is the most complex spectrum auction in world history and could be subject to unforeseen challenges.

Assuming that enough TV stations participate and the incentive auction takes place, how long will it take the FCC to repack the TV Band?

Repacking the TV stations into a smaller TV band is the hard part of the process, and could take a few years.  The repacking process is as complex as the DTV transition was, which ended up taking 10 years.

Will any pro audio manufacturers take part in the forward auction?

No, it’s not feasible (financially or technically) for a manufacturer like Shure to own and administer a piece of spectrum solely for its own users.

In 2009, wireless systems that operated in the 700 MHz band were no longer allowed.  Could reallocation of the TV Band make today’s wireless systems obsolete?

Wireless microphones (as well as personal monitors, production intercoms, and similar gear) that are in the spectrum that is auctioned will have to stop operating at whatever date is set by the FCC.  This means that those systems will need to be replaced with units that operate in the spectrum that is still open for wireless mic use.  Failure to comply with FCC rules (just like IRS or EPA rules) is illegal and subject to enforcement action.

Should I be doing anything now to get ready for post-repack landscape?

At this point, the most valuable thing to have is information.  Every facility or venue that uses wireless microphones needs to appoint someone to keep up with this issue as it progresses.  If you own equipment in the upper part of the TV band, it would be wise to begin budgeting for replacement equipment, so that you’ll be ready to act when the available TV channels in your area are finalized.

How can I stay informed of what’s going on?

The FCC’s LEARN Program is quite user-friendly, and spectrum issues are always reported on their blog.  Shure’s website and publications also report significant developments.  And our Product Support department is always a good resource for guidance.

 

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