T-Mobile: Sinclair-Tribune merger could sabotage 600 MHz transition

spectrum CBRS
Sinclair announced plans in May to acquire Tribune's 42 TV stations in 33 markets.

Opponents of the proposed $3.9 billion megamerger of two of the largest owners of local TV stations, Sinclair and Tribune Media, are warning that the deal could impact the spectrum reallocation timeline for recently auctioned broadcast airwaves.

A large chunk of 600 MHz broadcast spectrum is being freed up for advanced wireless services by the transition from analog to digital TV following an April incentive auction—but that transition will take time. The FCC has given itself 39 months to complete the process, which involves repacking broadcast airwaves into new channels to protect their signals from neighboring broadband interference, and reauthorizing and relicensing TV stations.

Sinclair, which owns 173 local television stations in the U.S., announced plans in May to acquire Tribune's 42 TV stations in 33 markets. Regulators are mulling the deal, which would extend Sinclair’s reach to 72% of American households.

T-Mobile USA, the big winner in the incentive auction, has filed a petition with the FCC noting that with such scale at stake, the integration and logistics of the merger could bog down the transfer of broadcast airwaves spectrum for wireless use. Or, Sinclair could choose to sabotage the effort altogether. It added that Sinclair has already indicated the possibility of a delay.

“The 'New' Sinclair will have over 110 stations slated for repacking and over 50 stations vacating the newly created 600 MHz band—making it by far the largest broadcaster engaged in repacking," T-Mobile told the FCC in a filing (PDF). "In addition to broadcast stations, Sinclair also controls Dielectric, the nation’s largest television antenna manufacturer, and Acrodyne Services, a television equipment servicing company; and owns numerous broadcasting tower and transmission sites. This massive portfolio of stations and vertically integrated businesses will provide New Sinclair with multiple means to thwart the repacking process in practically every region of the country."

The No. 3 wireless carrier has asked for a series of conditions to be imposed, including:

  • The imposition of a clear and unambiguous obligation on the applicants to comply with the repacking timetable that the Commission has adopted for their stations.
  • The imposition of substantial penalties for failing to meet this timetable.
  • A prohibition on the applicants requesting any ATSC 3.0-related concessions from carriers in negotiations to accelerate Sinclair’s departure from the 600 MHz band.

T-Mobile has filed a fairly aggressive plan with the FCC to deploy its freshly awarded 600 MHz spectrum for mobile broadband, with a goal to cover 1 million-plus square miles of the country with service by the end of the year, focusing on areas where residents may have never had wireless broadband connections, or where competition is limited.

The operator is not alone in its concerns.

“The transaction could … delay mobile broadband deployment in the 600 MHz band, and stifle permission-less innovation in the TV White Spaces, hindering efforts to close the digital divide,” said consumer advocacy group Public Policy, in a statement. “Deployment delays in the 600 MHz spectrum would prevent competitive and rural wireless carriers from meeting the growing consumer demand for mobile broadband, and impeding new uses of unoccupied TV spectrum could thwart development of new technologies that have the potential to bring connectivity to the most sparsely populated parts of the U.S.”

The CCA weighed in as well, noting in its filing that a combined Sinclair-Tribune would “inject delay and uncertainty into the post-incentive auction transition process; and undermine the deployment of broadband services in rural markets, jobs, education, healthcare and the ability of the United States to compete in a global economy.” It also said that it would slow the repack by allowing Dialectric to “[withhold] equipment its rivals need” for facilities to support their reassigned channels.

“Not often does a broadcast transaction have a direct detrimental impact on wireless carriers and their consumers. This transaction is one of the exceptions and therefore, I strongly encourage the Commission to deny the proposed Tribune/Sinclair transaction,” CCA CEO Steven Berry said.

Beyond those interested in the spectrum transition, the list of those opposing the merger is long, with everyone from conservative media groups (One America News Network, Newsmax and Glenn Beck's The Blaze) to lefty public policy advocates filing petitions with the FCC. The main argument is the idea that further consolidation in the broadcast market would narrow viewing choices for millions of Americans, and give the conservative-leaning Sinclair too much influence over local news content.

Additionally, pay TV and over-the-top companies (DISH Network, the American Cable Association, CCA and a group that represents Google and Amazon) are worried about the combined company’s leverage in retransmission negotiations.