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It's been a long time coming. The FCC today announced the results of its spectrum auction, and it's going to reshape television broadcasting as we know it and open up opportunities for better and faster cell service in more areas. Let's take a look.
The need for a spectrum auction
This move by the FCC is the largest reallocation of broadcast frequencies in history. The FCC's own table shows that all frequencies above UHF channel 36 will be reallocated for use in cellular data transmissions. That's 16 UHF channels, and that follows a similar auction in 2008 when channels 52 through 69 were auctioned off and a reallocation in 1983 when channels 70 through 83 were given to first responders. This leaves a total of 29 available broadcast channels per market, where a generation ago there were 82 slots. Note: a previous version of this article, based on earlier FCC data, stated that channels 31-36 were also going away. This appears to be untrue.
This move is needed because cellular data, which wasn't even a thing in 1990, has grown massively. Everyone wants to stream and to do that, you need a lot of bandwidth.
It's made possible because today's digital transmitters are far more precise than the ones made in the 1970s. At one time, a maze of rules were in place to make sure that no one, ever, could receive two channels on adjacent frequencies. That meant making sure that every time two markets touched, not only could they not share frequencies, but there had to be at least one channel between them. The result was a confusing and complicated map that required a lot of empty space to make it work. Today that "sideband protection" isn't needed, so stations can be "repacked" into a much smaller area. Only very large markets like Los Angeles and New York will even come close to needing 22 different broadcast frequencies. In some markets, public television stations will be electing to share spectrum with other stations, but this practice isn't expected to be common for private station owners.
How did we get to this point?
For the last three years, the FCC has been conducting a "reverse auction" where station owners tell the government what they will accept in order to either give up their frequencies or stop broadcasting altogether. It was expected that a lot of station owners, faced with high costs and competition, would give up altogether, but only 33 station owners elected to "go dark." Another 133 are accepting payments to move to a new frequency. Here's the full list of winning stations. The big winner was a station in Chicago who will be accepting $300 million to move its transmitter to a new frequency.
Since the auction wasn't as popular as the FCC expected, they've drafted about another 1,000 stations who will receive smaller payments in order to move out of the broadcast spectrum they have now. These stations will get enough money for new broadcast facilities, but they won't profit as much as they would have if they'd participated.
What happened today?
Today, the FCC announced who will be getting to use that wide open spectrum once it becomes available. T-Mobile came in as the top bidder with over $8 billion paid out, and a holding company called "ParkerB.com Wireless" financed by DISH paid $6.2 billion dollars. AT&T paid nearly a billion dollars themselves. Here's the list of companies that are paying for these new licenses.
It's no surprise that T-Mobile, which missed out on the last round of licenses and has been leasing some spectrum from AT&T, jumped in with both feet. What's more surprising is DISH's move here. The company has been acquiring broadcast licenses left and right for the last five years. They even made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Sprint outright. This latest move makes it even more obvious that they want to be in the cellular data business, but to date they aren't doing anything about it. At some point, if they don't start building out a wireless network, they could be fined by the FCC for "squatting" and forced to give up the licenses they bought.
AT&T's move here is also predictable. These new frequencies will help shore up areas where their cellular network is weak, but as one of the big winners in the last auction, they have plenty of bandwidth for their existing LTE ambitions. When it comes to 5G, the next generation of services, they're currently making plans that center around a much higher block of frequencies that should allow them to offer internet service to homes with the same speed and capacity as wired providers.
What happens now?
Broadcasters who are part of this "repacking" now have 36 months to either move to a new frequency range or surrender their licenses altogether. When they get close to that point, they'll have to notify customers within 30 days.
If you get TV from an antenna, a channel scan will be necessary to keep the stations you already have. You will also need to consider either buying a new antenna designed to receive only TV frequencies or put on a filter to eliminate those new cell data frequencies which could cause interference. As that comes up, there will be plenty of information on The Solid Signal Blog to help you choose the best option.
If you get your TV only from cable, satellite, or streaming you won't have to do anything.
Sometime in the next three years you'll probably get a new phone anyway, and when you do (if you're a customer of AT&T, T-Mobile, or any of the smaller companies who bought licenses) it will automatically come with the ability to receive these new cell tower broadcasts. The only thing you'll notice is better cellular internet.
If you have a cellular booster, you may choose to upgrade it in the next 3-5 years to use the new frequencies. The booster you have will continue to work.
Here's a list of all the stations in the US and their new allocations, courtesy of Rabbitears.info.
This ends up being a win for everyone. Many broadcasters will essentially get new equipment for free, the cost to the taxpayer will be zero (in fact the whole thing will make money for the government) and there will be more space for more people to stream to their heart's content. Win, Win, Win.
T-Mobile, Comcast, Dish Big Winners in FCC Airwaves Auction - Bloomberg
T-Mobile, Comcast, Dish win FCC wireless spectrum auction - CNET
Stations Set to Reap $10 Billion as FCC Closes Auction | Variety
FCC: Almost 1,000 Stations Will Have To Move | TVNewsCheck.com
North American television frequencies - Wikipedia
Bidders Flock to FCC Chairman Wheelers Landmark Wireless Auction