FCC Takes First Step Toward “Repurposing” UHF TV Spectrum for Wireless Broadband Service

February 07, 2011

FCC Publishes Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on “Innovation in the Broadcast Television Bands” Seeking Comment on the Impact of TV Stations Sharing 6 MHz Channels and Techniques to Improve TV Reception in VHF Frequencies

(ET Docket No. 10-235)

Comments due March 18, 2011 / Reply comments due April 18, 2011


“Unleashing spectrum” for mobile broadband use is a top priority for the FCC in 2011, according to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. This is necessary to meet the FCC’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) goal of making available 500 megahertz of spectrum between 225 MHz and 3.7 GHz in the next 10 years with 300 megahertz of that amount to be freed up within 5 years. The NBP said that 120 megahertz should come from UHF TV frequencies. To achieve this goal without eliminating over-the-air TV, the NBP proposes “repacking” existing TV stations into significantly less spectrum and making capacity released as a result of the repacking process available for new services. This Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) takes the first concrete steps toward making possible the repacking and reallocation of TV band spectrum.

The NPRM, published last week in the Federal Register, seeks input on a wide variety of issues related to the principal techniques the FCC expects to use in making changes to the TV spectrum. Specifically:

  • What regulatory and technical hurdles need to be overcome to enable two or more TV stations to share a single 6 MHz UHF or VHF channel; and
  • What technical changes will improve the utility of VHF spectrum for TV reception.

The FCC’s renewed interest in using VHF frequencies (channels 2-4/54-72 MHz, channels 5-6/76-88 MHz and channels 7-13/174-216 MHz) for over-the-air TV suggests that compressing the broadcasters into the VHF and lower UHF channels is the ultimate objective of repacking, which would enable the upper half of the UHF to be repurposed and possibly auctioned for new wireless uses in a nearly contiguous 120 MHz block starting at channel 31 and ending at channel 51, excluding channel 37 which is allocated to radio-astronomy and medical telemetry.

This NPRM narrowly seeks comment on specific technical and logistical issues necessary to repack broadcast television stations. It does not address other critical prerequisites for the reallocation and possible auction of the UHF frequencies for new wireless services, including the extent to which repacked broadcasters might receive compensation through an incentive auction or other mechanism or whether some spectrum will be set aside for unlicensed services or other incumbent uses such as wireless microphones. Nor does it seek comment on service rules for the new entrants in the UHF spectrum released through repacking.

Among other specific issues, comment is sought on the following:

Channel Sharing Issues

The Commission broadly seeks comment on the “development of an appropriate regulatory structure for voluntary television channel sharing that will preserve over-the-air television as a healthy, viable medium going forward.” The Commission also seeks specific input on a number of issues raised by its proposed channel sharing scheme.

  • Will Channel Sharing Hinder Broadcaster Innovation? For example, what impact will channel sharing have on nascent mobile TV services? 
  • What Basic Regulatory Obligations and Guidelines Should Apply to Channel Sharing Broadcasters? Beyond maintaining at least one SD channel, what obligations should apply to a channel sharing broadcaster? Should non-commercial/public interest stations operate on special reserved channels?
  • Consideration of Service Losses: Consolidating multiple TV signals on a single antenna/transmitter will occasionally require a broadcaster to relocate physically and may leave some legacy viewers on the outside of the useable contour of a TV signal they previously received. The FCC seeks input on how to balance broadcast service loss against the public interest of providing new wireless services.
  • Must Carry Rights: Comment is sought on how “must carry” obligations should be adjusted under a channel sharing scheme. 
  • High-Definition Picture Quality at Risk? Will a single 6 MHz channel support two (2) simultaneous HD signals? Will channel sharing reduce free, over-the-air HD content? The broadcast engineering community has already “expressed concern” that a 6 MHz channel will not adequately support simultaneous HD signals.

Improving Reception of VHF TV Service

The FCC recognizes that VHF spectrum poses challenges for providing digital television service due to a number of factors.  To overcome these challenges the Commission seeks comment on a number of solutions, including:

  • Options for reducing spurious emissions in the VHF band.
  • Increasing the power of VHF TV transmitters.
  • The implementation of new standards for higher quality indoor VHF antennas.

If you have questions regarding this NPRM or require assistance preparing comments, please contact the following lawyers in our Telecommunications, Media & Technology Group:

Andrew D. Lipman, Partner, 202.373.6033

Catherine Wang, Partner, 202.373.6037

Timothy L. Bransford, Associate, 202.373.6140

This article was originally published by Bingham McCutchen LLP.