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Wheeler Pushing Hard on ATSC, Auction

Alan Breznick
4/21/2016

LAS VEGAS -- NAB SHOW -- Even though his term in office may be running out soon, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is showing no signs of slowing down.

Speaking here at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) on Wednesday, Wheeler said he's pushing hard for Commission action on numerous fronts, including the next-gen TV transmission standard developed by the broadcasting industry, the forthcoming auction of broadcast spectrum for wireless use, and broadcast retransmission-consent regulation reform. "I'll focus on running through the tape," the Obama administration appointee said, making a running analogy after noting that the next US president will be inaugurated in just ten months.

In a nearly hour-long question-and-answer session with Marci Burdick, an NAB executive committee member and former chair of Schurz Broadcasting, Wheeler said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will soon take up ATSC 3.0, the new over-the-air transmission standard developed by broadcast industry engineers. He said he plans to put the industry's petition to roll out the standard voluntarily on a market-by-market basis out for public notice before the end of April. (See Broadcast TV Heads for IP & Competitiveness.)

"ATSC 3.0 is significant," he said. "We need to move with dispatch to get that into the public debate."

While congratulating and praising the engineers for developing the new technical standard, Wheeler said developing public policy is another matter. "I've been hearing about 3.0 for a long time, and they've pulled it off technically," he said. "The question is, you've got the technology part licked, now we've got to figure out the impact on the market and on the consumer.”

Turning to the next big spectrum auction, which is slated to start next month, Wheeler said he also intends to release the spectrum optimization plan, which will "give us an idea of the size and the scope of who is showing up," and the clearing target before the end of the month. But he declined to project how much the spectrum might reap for the federal treasury, joking that the total will be "bigger than a bread box."

Wheeler, who has headed the FCC for three years, emphasized that much will depend on whether mobile carriers end up putting their money where their mouths are. "Wireless providers keep saying they need more spectrum," he said. "There will be a very significant chunk of it before the end of the month. Then we'll know how badly they really needed the spectrum."

The FCC chief stressed that the auction will go through as many stages as necessary to achieve market balance. He added that "I bet we'll have an idea" of how much money will be raised in June.

Moving on to the retransmission-consent rules, which the FCC has taken up at the behest of Congress, Wheeler said he's aiming for a Commission decision on possible reforms by the end of the year. Although he agreed with Burdick that the retransmission process has generally worked well for the past 22 years and is still not broken now despite the complaints of pay-TV providers, he noted that technological and competitive marketplace changes are forcing the agency to act.

"What's happened is that too often corporate bickering has resulted in consumer harm," he said. "I think that's why Congress has asked us to take a look at it."

With blackouts by TV stations and programmers becoming more and more common each year and SNL Kagan projecting that broadcast retransmission fees could reach almost $10 billion by 2020, cable and other pay-TV groups have been lobbying for retransmission reform. But federal regulators have declined to intervene in the market until now.

Keeping his cards to himself, Wheeler did not signal what the FCC might do. "We are currently managing that process," he said.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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