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Airwaves auction means headaches for local TV

It wasn’t all that long ago that broadcast television was pushed whole cloth into the digital age.

Even though it was a headache for viewers without cable or satellite service, it created more programming options on secondary signals. Now, thanks to a 2017 Federal Communications Commission auction of broadcast airwaves to meet the burgeoning consumer demand for wireless services, 77 million television viewers will be going through more adjustments.

The National Association of Broadcasters reports more than 1,000 television stations will have to change frequencies as a result of the FCC auction, which allowed stations to sell airwaves to wireless companies who needed to ease congestion on their networks. The auction will effectively repack TV band into channels 36 and below, freeing up other channels for wireless uses.

The migration began last fall and will continue until July 3, 2020. Although Congress has appropriated $2.75 billion for the FCC to reimburse broadcasters for the transition costs, industry insiders expect costs to exceed that figure.

Unlike the mass disruption caused by the switch from analog to digital transmission delivery in 2009, this round is relatively painless for sharp-eyed viewers. Channel numbers on TV sets won’t change, thanks to technology advances. But it will require the nearly 1 in 5 Americans without cable or satellite service who rely on roof or rabbit-ear antennas to put their televisions through their rescanning paces. With more Americans cutting the cord monthly, the NAB anticipates more people will be affected by the end of the migration.

While the digital changeover proved extremely challenging and expensive, the airwaves auction demonstrated a general lack of understanding in Washington about its repercussions, said Patsy Smullin, president of California Oregon Broadcasting Inc.

“It’s apples and oranges, but both have a huge effect, particularly on small-market broadcasting,” she said.

Broadcast companies such as COBI, parent of Medford NBC affiliate KOBI (Channel 5) and operator of 28 translators in Southern Oregon and Northern California, will have to shift equipment in order to pick up new frequencies.

“Seven translators have been displaced for sure,” said Karl Sargent, corporate engineering director for COBI. “We won’t know about the others until this is all through.”

Each change will require a rescan for affected viewers.

The primary scramble for spectrum — radio waves that carry data, video and sound — are in major metropolitan markets and mountainous regions. In metro areas, powerful, legacy channels whose signals have been jostled have first rights, so to speak, to establish unhindered transmission. In turn, other stations down the FCC food chain whose translators might have been bumped around by the big boys must find new frequencies.

John Rand, chief operating officer for Northwest Broadcasting, which owns FOX affiliate KMVU (Channel 26) and MyNetworkTV KFBI (Channel 48) in Medford, said the translator shuffle can extend for miles and miles.

“Our FOX affiliate in Yakima, Washington, had to move to a different channel because of moves in Seattle,” Rand said.

T-Mobile, based in Bellevue, Washington, spent nearly $8 billion to reel in 31 megahertz of the 70 megahertz auctioned by the FCC last April for a total of $19.8 billion. It didn’t take long for T-Mobile to inform Northwest broadcasters they had to give up their frequencies.

That resulted in plenty of action for the engineering staff at Medford CBS affiliate KTVL (Channel 10) — and angst for viewers without cable or satellite — after a transmitter change last fall triggered by the auction.

“We got hundreds of calls” when KTVL disappeared off the air for some users, said Chief Engineer David Katz.

Even though KTVL’s phone message alerted callers that it was necessary to rescan TV sets in order to pick up the channel again, viewers were befuddled.

“The first thing that happens when you take a brand new TV out of the box is scan for channels,” Katz said. “And 99 percent of the people had never done it since then.”

Katz said phone calls still trickle in and he expects more when the translator on Mount Sexton is replaced.

“They’ll be calling to find out why we disappeared,” he said.

The cost of finding new frequencies runs the gamut, from FCC filing and licensing fees, to engineering consultants and lawyers, to equipment and tower climbers to do the work.

Antennas designed for specific frequencies and filters cost stations about $3,000 to $4,000, Katz said, and tower climbers between $1,000 and $2,000.

One non-commercial broadcaster is faced with multiple hurdles.

Perry Atkinson, president of theDove, which operates KDOV-TV locally and 10 over-the-air signals between Portland and Monterey, California, said it may take years to iron out the changes.

When the television station took flight in 2011, it was located on Channel 44, on the same tower as KDOV radio off North Phoenix Road. As the FCC moved toward a spectrum auction, Atkinson mitigated possible damage by acquiring Channel 18 with a tower on Mount Baldy that previously belonged to another religious broadcast group.

The key thing, he said, was to acquire a channel at 36 or below. As a result, when the letter came from T-Mobile forcing theDove to halt broadcasting on Channel 44 last Oct. 31, there was another channel in place.

“The auction hits the high-powered guys with translators, and as a result everyone is scrambling to find new frequencies,” Atkinson said.

Channel 44’s antenna and transmitter, he said, were built with contributions from theDove’s radio audience. The auction meant starting over.

“Most people will change a frequency at the tower they’re on,” Atkinson said. “But we will have to rebuild the station, get an antenna, and in our case rebuild on another tower site with a different translator and transmitter.”

Although theDove and others will seek reimbursement from the FCC, filings are public and Atkinson is concerned other broadcasting interests could pursue the same frequencies.

The most recent federal spending bill signed by President Donald Trump in March added $1 billion to the $1.75 billion previously set aside in 2012 to reimburse stations for the expense of changing frequencies. The bill appropriates $600 million this year for the “repack,” as it’s called, and an additional $400 million in funding for 2019.

“The idea was to reimburse full-power and Class A TV stations,” FCC spokesman Charlie Meisner said.

At the same time, low-power stations were enabled to move to new channels to protect the populations they served and keep the same general geographic coverage, something championed by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“Chairman Walden was very concerned about the lower power stations,” Meisner said.

As a result, $150 million was earmarked for low power translator relocation and replacement.

In February, the FCC announced a “special displacement window” for filing applications for new channels between April 10 and May 15.

The FCC study identified channels that won’t be available because they are being used by non-displaced low-power stations and translators or full-power stations protected in the repack. The space-available process does not guarantee a new channel for broadcasters, but will accommodate as many as possible. What that portends for local broadcasters is yet to be seen.

“Until we complete the process, review and grant licenses, and resolve mutual exclusivity situations, we won’t know the universe of how many stations are involved,” Meisner said. “Once we know that, at least we will have some idea of which areas might be hit more than others.”

On Thursday, however, Washington, D.C.-based LPTV (low-power television) Spectrum Rights Coalition, whose members include Northwest Broadcasting and theDove, asked the FCC for a two-week extension.

The request by coalition Director Mike Gravino stemmed from a change in guidance provided by the FCC at last weekend’s National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas.

In essence, if an LPTV filing was rejected, stations could reapply. Previously, the agency had told broadcasters to prioritize applications and coordinate with other filers.

“Extending the filing window by two weeks to 30 days will not in any way at all affect the primary transition plan, not even by a day,” Gravino wrote. “An extension will not disadvantage any type of filer, nor will it impact any business or financing decisions, but could actually benefit them by having more certainty and precision in the filings.”

An extension would avoid mass confusion about available channels and lead to a more equitable and fair process, he said.

It boils down to filing early and often until a usable frequency is obtained, Gravino said. “Or filing late with certainty that no one else will file on top of you.”

Southern Oregon Public Television, whose signal beams into Curry, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine, and Klamath counties, as well as Modoc and Siskiyou counties in Northern California, will drop to 11 translators from 12 if it loses Channel 42. So far there’s relatively little disruption. CEO Mark Stanislawski said SOPTV’s decision 15 years ago to put a translator on Mount Baldy rather than King Mountain on the Josephine-Douglas county line helped alleviate stress now.

“We may not lose 42 at all, but if we do, we have Channel 34 on Baldy,” Stanislawski said. “We have to be ready and if we have to file something with the FCC, we’re fairly prepared for it.”

Ron Sweatte, chief technology officer for Northwest Broadcasting, said KFBI had to move from Channel 48 to 19 locally.

“The issue for us, is the expense of changes and the logistics,” Sweatte said. “We have enough work to do already.”

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Television towers get one of the best views in the Rogue Valley -- and unencumbered access to airwaves -- on Mount Baldy. A recent FCC auction of airwaves to make room for wireless means some local TV stations will need to change frequencies.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Finding new frequencies will mean costly equipment adjustments for some stations, though the FCC is offering reimbursement.