Why Knowledge is Power in Uncertain Times

As the sands shift beneath the foundation of the television business, the smart management of this inevitable change is critical for traditional TV providers.

Change is coming from all directions—new distribution competitors and content creators; the evolving content-licensing landscape; and new rules from policymakers and regulators. Profound change is at the door step of every sector of the TV business.

The terrestrial TV broadcast industry, for example, is facing fundamental change as mobile service providers around the world successfully petition policymakers and regulators to dedicate large swaths of TV spectrum for mobile services. These point-to-point mobile networks require significant bandwidth and those requirements are only growing as providers plan to deliver more bandwidth-intensive mobile services, especially video.

In many cases, the transfer of airwave use from incumbents to new video providers has already occurred. In others, statutes are in place and rules are being drawn up on how the spectrum changes hands. That transfer continues unabated with few exceptions. One recent reprieve for broadcasters came at the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) this past November. The conference agreed to continue to reserve the 470-694 MHz band in Region 1 (Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia) for digital terrestrial TV broadcasts instead of allocating any of it for mobile services—at least through 2023 when the decision will be up for review again.

But in the U.S., many TV broadcasters in the 600 MHz UHF TV band are preparing to vacate or move to another part of the band. Despite the 2014 release of the FCC rules for the incentive auction and the subsequent spectrum repack that will result in many broadcasters moving to new channel assignments, those transition rules are still up in the air. It would seem that after years of planning for the complex auction and channel reassignment, the process was not fully thought through. TV providers facing these profound kinds of changes must be armed with detailed and unassailable research and knowledge.

The timetable and compensation rules for how broadcasters would move to new channel assignments appeared unrealistic to those who would do the work, but the consequences for not meeting the deadlines would be catastrophic: going off the air. Therefore, an indepth study quantifying the necessary engineering and implementation for the 800-1,200 stations making the move at the same time, was imperative.

Digital Tech Consulting conducted the study and, not until it was made public, was there any action toward modifying the rules. Within two weeks of the study’s release, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler assured broadcasters that they would not have to cease broadcasting for failing to meet the 39-month deadline. In addition, broadcasters suggested that a regional approach to moving stations to new channel assignments would aid in accomplishing the program’s overall goal: transfer spectrum to wireless providers as efficiently and as quickly as possible. To that end, a draft bill was filed in the House of Representatives on January 5, 2016, seeking to adjust the rules to create a more realistic repack deadline so that stations don‘t go dark and have access to an increased amount of transition funds. More importantly, the bill calls for the implementation of a regionalized transition strategy.

In this case, the indepth study and plans for a regionalized approach from the incumbent broadcasters illustrate the recognition that the sands have, indeed, shifted. Within that shift, bringing knowledge and constructive ideas to the table may be the only way to survive in this new landscape.

And the stakes couldn’t be higher. For those who want to continue to play in the TV business sand box, it’s imperative to manage these uncertain times by presenting the unvarnished facts to those (be they government or industry) who are reapportioning the sand in that box.