Tom Wheeler’s legacy as the Federal Communications Commission chairman who transformed national spectrum policy is one step closer to reality after a federal court rendered a decision that will allow the FCC to go full speed ahead.
The D.C. court of appeals Friday denied broadcasters petitions that challenged key provisions of the FCC’s auction plans, including the way the FCC plans to repackage stations in a smaller portion of the spectrum.
Had the three-judges gone the other way, it could have held up Wheeler’s goal to hold the auction in early 2016.
“We are gratified that the Court agrees with the commission’s balanced, market-based approach to freeing up more valuable spectrum for innovative wireless broadband services. This decision provides the Commission and all stakeholders with the certainty necessary to proceed apace toward a successful auction in the first quarter of next year,” Wheeler said.
The court’s decision was a blow to broadcasters, who feared that the FCC’s repacking plan won’t deliver stations the same coverage area and audience reach that they currently have. Under the law, the FCC is required to take all reasonable efforts to preserve the coverage areas.
“We’re disappointed with today’s ruling, which we believe fails to hold the FCC to the letter of the law passed by Congress,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters. “Nonetheless, we remain committed to working with policymakers to ensure a successful auction that protects the interests of broadcasters, whether they participate or not, and does not disenfranchise our tens of millions of viewers.”
At stake is some of the most coveted spectrum on the band, highly desirable for wireless services because it can deliver mobile services in buildings and cover a wide area. But the success of the auction depends on how many broadcasters are willing to sell their spectrum at what price (the reverse auction), before it is auctioned off to wireless bidders.
The potential for the broadcast lawsuit to slow down the auction date caused a rift among those broadcasters that want to sell and those that want to stay in business. The Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition (EOBC) representing more than 80 would-be TV station sellers, intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the FCC.
“This is a tribute to the hardworking FCC staff and great news for starting the incentive auction early in 2016,” said Preston Padden, executive director of the EOBC.
GOP lawmakers, who have held a number of oversight hearings on the auction, didn’t specifically take a side on the decision, but they did urge both sides to work together.
“The FCC, broadcasters, and the wireless community must continue working together to make this auction a success. As the Spectrum Act intended, we need buy-in from all of these groups to ensure American spectrum needs are met without harming broadcasters’ ability to serve their communities,” said House commerce chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and communications and technology subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.)
In a move that could make it easier for broadcasters to both sell some spectrum and stay in business, the FCC adopted an order Friday revising its channel sharing rules. The FCC is giving broadcasters more flexibility about when stations can cut deals with other stations to share a channel. Prior to Friday’s order, stations had to ink deals before the auction.
The FCC is expected to finalize all auction rules sometime this summer.
Things are going Wheeler’s way of late. The same court that denied the broadcasters’ petitions also a day earlier declined petitions from the telecom and cable industries to grant a stay of the FCC’s net neutrality rules.