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Walden to Wheeler: Don’t favor unlicensed users over LPTV

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.)

The Federal Communications Commission should not sacrifice low power TV and translators in order to provide more unlicensed spectrum in the broadcast incentive auction.

That was the message delivered in a letter Tuesday to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler from House communications and technology subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and House commerce chairman emeritus Joe Barton (R-Tex.).

The FCC is set to vote this Thursday on critical spectrum auction procedures that will determine how TV stations are repacked in a smaller portion of the spectrum band. However, it is unclear how the repacking will affect low power television (LPTV) and translators, which serve significant portions of the western U.S., putting the fate of these broadcast outlets up in the air.

“While the commission was granted significant flexibility to repack broadcast stations to optimize the recovered spectrum in the 600 MHz band, the commission itself recognized that it had the responsibility to ‘help preserve the important services’ provided by LPTV and translators. I am concerned that the current focus on white spaces and unlicensed services outside of the duplex gap and guard bands may unnecessarily harm the communities served by LPTV and translators,” the lawmakers wrote.

When asked about his plans for LPTV and translators at Walden’s subcommittee hearing last week, Wheeler said there were multiple things the commission could do, but that the statute did not explicitly address LPTV and translators.

“Spectrum legislation does not create a repacking role for translators,” Wheeler told Walden. “We’re going to help them find channels if they get displaced. But we don’t know where the displacement will happen because we don’t know the outcome of the auction,” Wheeler said, adding that he would begin a rule making to allow LPTV and translators to share channels.

In the letter, Walden and Barton clarified the meaning of the statute. “The MCTR (Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act) does not allow the FCC to elevate unlicensed operation over translators and low power stations in the television and to unnecessarily deprive this constituency of their local programming,” the lawmakers wrote.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is getting an earful ahead of Thursday’s meeting that will take up critical items governing the broadcast incentive auction, tentatively planned for March 29, 2016. A group of Senate Democrats also wrote to Wheeler Tuesday urging him to think twice before placing some TV stations in the duplex gap.