Bud Paxson leads deal to clear analog channels for wireless use

Feb 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A coalition of broadcasters occupying channels 60 to 69 on the analog television spectrum is near agreement with wireless phone companies on a plan to clear the band for wireless use, Paxson Communications Chairman Lowell “Bud” Paxson said last week.
Addressing the Federal Communications Bar Association in Washington, he said Paxson has aligned with Univision, Pappas Telecasting, Shop at Home and other station owners.
The coalition represents about 40 percent of the spectrum on the band, which is used by 136 TV stations. Mr. Paxson is hopeful that stations accounting for up to 95 percent of the spectrum will join in.
The Federal Communications Commission is expected to auction the spectrum Sept. 30. But there has been speculation the auction won’t garner much revenue because broadcasters don’t have to vacate the frequencies until 2006 or later in markets where 85 percent of viewers don’t have access to digital TV signals.
Mr. Paxson thinks the coalition’s approach would raise between $30 billion and $36 billion, far more than the few billion the government has anticipated.
That’s because the plan calls for incumbent broadcasters to leave the spectrum early-Paxson said his 19 analog TV stations would clear the band in 2003 or 2004-boosting the spectrum’s value so more money can be raised.
In exchange, the broadcasters would receive financial compensation from the wireless companies. An industry source emphasized that some broadcasters with major stations on the band will not enter into any deals to vacate early.
Some incumbents want the plan contingent on FCC approval of must-carry rights for digital TV stations on cable channels.
The FCC has tentatively concluded it will not require carriage of both a broadcaster’s analog and digital feed. Nor does it expect to require carriage of multicast digital signals.
Mr. Paxson isn’t seeking dual carriage, but he does want must-carry requirements for multicast signals so his Pax TV network can create up to five additional channels of programming. He said if DTV must-carry isn’t in place by the auction, “there may be [broadcast] squatters on this band.”
The plan will be released to the FCC and lawmakers in two to four weeks.
The proposal raises complicated questions about the availability of the analog signals to be cleared from the band.
Mr. Paxson said his analog stations vacating the band would have to be carried by cable. That’s because the FCC requires cable companies to carry the main digital feed-in analog form-of any broadcaster that doesn’t operate in analog or has returned its analog spectrum to the government.
All commercial and public broadcasters must be operating in digital by 2002 or in 2003, respectively. Few viewers, however, will have DTV-ready TV sets in the coming years.
Viewers used to receiving Paxson stations for free using over-the-air antennas with their analog sets appear to be out of luck. Mr. Paxson said he’ll “take care of them” but didn’t explain how.
It’s also unclear how viewers relying on free, over-the-air transmissions of the other analog signals to leave the band would receive them.
Meanwhile, Mr. Paxson is worried that the transition to digital television has stalled. He called upon FCC Chairman Michael Powell to hold a series of hearings addressing the regulatory and technology hurdles impeding DTV.
“Chairman Powell, you’ve used the words `train wreck’ in describing DTV. You’re the engineer. Now get us back on track,” he said.