FCC Adopts Broadcast Incentive Auction Items, Clarifies Rules for Unlicensed and Microphone Operations in TV Bands

By Stephen J. Matzura and Marty Stern

The FCC, at its open meeting last week, adopted a number of key items on the broadcast incentive auction, which it hopes to kick off by March 2016.  If successful, the incentive auction will allow participating broadcasters to receive payment for relinquishing their spectrum and will make spectrum available in the 600 MHz band for auction to wireless providers.

Among a raft of complexities, the process will require that remaining broadcasters be “repacked” in the band from their existing channels.  At the same time, it will provide for unlicensed use (think Wi-Fi and TV “white space” devices) of guard bands between wireless and broadcast frequencies, and what is known as the “duplex gap” — vacant space between the uplink and downlink operations of the new wireless providers in the band.  In one contentious move, the Commission agreed to provide flexibility in the repacking process by authorizing as necessary the relocation of broadcasters to the duplex gap in particular markets, which would render that spectrum unusable for unlicensed operations in those markets.  In a compromise brokered by Commissioner Rosenworcel, the Commission agreed to seek comment on whether it should preserve a vacant channel in such markets for unlicensed and licensed microphone use.

In a separate related order, the Commission declined to increase a spectrum reserve in the auction for smaller carriers from 30 MHz to 40 MHz.   In addition, in a contentious 3-2 vote, the Commission also issued a Procedures Public Notice that establishes bidding procedures for the auctions.

The Commission also adopted orders revising its technical rules for unlicensed white space devices and wireless microphones to operate on unused portions of spectrum in the 600 MHz band, including in the duplex gap and guard bands, and for the continued use of licensed wireless microphones in the band.  The Commission indicated that its revisions to its technical rules for unlicensed services in the band, known as the Part 15 rules, are intended to encourage development of innovative wireless broadband technologies and improve access to cost-effective broadband services for the public — as Commissioner Rosenworcel put it — “to keep the cool coming.”  Among other things, the order authorizes increased power levels in rural areas, relaxes certain technical rules, and helps address interference concerns by bolstering the information in the white space databases that control the deployment of unlicensed devices in the band.

The Part 15 order also increased the spectrum available for white space devices, authorizing the use of such devices in Channel 37, which is currently used by wireless monitoring devices in hospitals and healthcare facilities, known as the Wireless Medical Telemetry Service.   The Commission also authorized the operation of fixed white space devices on VHF television Channels 3 and 4, while authorizing personal/portable white space devices on UHF Channels 14 – 20.

During the Commission’s open meeting, Commissioner Pai expressed concerns about the use of white space devices on Channel 37 and potential interference with medical monitoring devices. To address his concerns, the rules, while allowing white space operations on Channel 37, provide protection zones around WMTS facilities and allow those zones to “automatically be extended up to three times their current size upon the licensee’s filing of a waiver request,” pending resolution of that request by the Commission.  Commissioner Pai also indicated that the rules encourage WMTS licensees who believe they are experiencing interference to work collaboratively with unlicensed service providers, rather than immediately complaining to the FCC.

The texts of the orders adopted at the meeting have not yet been released.

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