CTIA, L.A. TV stations launch pilot to demonstrate broadcast spectrum sharing

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The CTIA is partnering with two Los Angeles TV stations to launch a pilot project to show that the stations can share the same broadcast spectrum. The pilot is part of effort to gin up support among broadcasters to participate in next year's planned incentive auctions of 600 MHz broadcast TV spectrum.

In October 2013, when it released its order on interoperability in the lower 700 MHz band, the FCC said it was "interested in possibly authorizing one or more channel sharing pilots in order to demonstrate the technical and legal arrangements necessary to implement a successful channel sharing operation." The FCC encouraged broadcasters to participate in such pilots, even though the process for moving broadcasters or having them share channels will take years to complete as part of the auction process.

CTIA said that is collaborating with stations KLCS and KJLA to demonstrate that channel sharing would let over-the-air broadcasters continue providing their content without impacting their viewers while reducing infrastructure costs. Channel sharing allows two TV stations to share a single over-the-air broadcast channel, with their primary and multicast content combined on a single, digital stream capable of carrying multiple high definition (HD) and standard definition (SD) video services.

Once the two parties receive FCC approval, the testing process will occur through the first quarter of 2014.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler decided in December to push the start of the 600 MHz auction back to mid-2015 to make sure that the FCC got the technical rules of the auction correct and allow more time to develop the final rules. Under the FCC's proposed rules, broadcasters will submit bids to relinquish their 6 MHz pieces of spectrum in a reverse auction where the FCC will pay them. (The FCC's band plan for the broadcast spectrum carriers would use calls for 5 MHz blocks.)

The process is voluntary for broadcasters, but many worry that broadcasters might not give up their spectrum based to their previous resistance to the auctions and uncertainty over how much money they will ultimately receive, as well as how their operations will be affected by giving up their spectrum. That last concern is what the CTIA is trying to assuage with the pilot.

After broadcasters give up their spectrum, it will be "repacked" so that broadcasters that do not give up their spectrum can stay on the air. Then the FCC will conduct a traditional "forward" auction in which wireless carriers will bid for the freed spectrum. There is an ongoing debate over what the "band plan" should be for the spectrum once broadcasters are repacked. The final rules for the auction have not been set.

Under the channel sharing agreement, KLCS and KJLA will conduct a series of tests that will culminate in KLCS "hosting" KJLA's content and transmitting a shared stream that will combine the two stations' primary and multicast content, CTIA said. The stations will also attempt a variety of HD and SD video feeds to confirm the feasibility and technical limits of channel sharing between two unaffiliated broadcast stations. CTIA said there will be no impact to KJLA's and KLCS' viewers during the tests.

The stations volunteered to participate in the pilot channel sharing project, CTIA said. Once the testing process is complete, the organizations will report to the FCC on their findings, with the hope of giving the FCC and other interested parties information on how channel sharing works in practice.

CTIA said that to test the viability of the technology, it wanted to work with broadcast TV stations in a large city where the highest demand for spectrum is occurring. If the incentive auctions are to succeed, broadcasters in major metropolitan areas, so-called "NFL cities" for markets with National Football League teams, will need to give up their spectrum, since carriers need airwaves more in major markets than in rural areas.

It's unclear how amenable broadcasters will be in general to sharing channels. "We look forward to any new information arising from this pilot program. The industry already has a good deal of technical experience with channel sharing, as many stations multicast today, which is channel sharing under another banner," Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president of communications, said in a statement. "On a technical level, one of the main challenges to channel sharing concerns the ability of the sharers to offer new and innovative services as they are limiting their available spectrum. On the business side, there are difficult contractual provisions that would need to be addressed. We will continue to work with any interested parties to make the process as simple as possible should stations seek to go this route."

"Channel sharing represents a unique option for broadcasters that wish to continue to broadcast over-the-air programming, while also taking advantage of the incentive auction's once-in-a-lifetime financial opportunity," an FCC spokeserson said. "We welcome this pilot project proposal, and look forward to reviewing it closely."

For more:
- see this release

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