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No local takers, so far, on FCC proposal for 'reverse auction'

| Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, 2:11 a.m.

In the two years since the Federal Communications Commission began touting the idea, broadcasters still wonder if they'll lose 20 television channels to help satiate a growing appetite for broadband downloads.

“The vast majority of TV stations will intend to stay in the business,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president for communications at the National Association of Broadcasters.

In 2011, the FCC floated the idea of taking back 120 megahertz, eliminating channels 31-51, in order to add to the space available for Internet use.

When TV broadcasting went from analog to digital transmission, stations shifted to “actual” channels, while identifying themselves by “virtual” channels viewers knew.

In Pittsburgh that could eliminate WTAE-4, WPXI-11, WINP-16, WPMY-22, WPCB-40 and WPGH-53, which occupy, respectively, actual channels 51, 48, 38, 42, 50 and 43.

Under the Spectrum Act of 2012, the FCC established a $1.5 billion fund to “reimburse costs reasonably incurred by broadcasters who are relocated to new channels.”

That money would be allocated via a “reverse auction,” now likely to happen sometime next year, during which stations can turn in their licenses.

“We expect that some broadcasters will kick the tires,” Wharton said.

Broadcast industry analyst Scott Fybush, writing for current.org, said the 2012 act still mandates removal of 20 channels, but with new technical standards to allow broadcasters unwilling to give up their spectrum to retain substantially all of their coverage.

“There is a group that is interested in having it go forward,” FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said. “They are more optimistic that this can be more to their benefit.”

Wharton calls it a “coalition of the willing” led by former Fox and Disney executive Preston Padden.

“He claims he has something like 70 to 100 TV stations that are planning to take part in the auction,” Wharton said. “None of them happen to be affiliates of the four major networks.”

Wharton said he has not heard of any Pittsburgh broadcasters interested in turning in their licenses, but he also doesn't want to impede the FCC's plans.

“We want to make this auction successful,” the NAB spokesman said. “We don't want to be fighting this in two years after a failed auction. We want to provide certainty to the broadcast industry and to Wall Street.”

Spectrum is being found for use by fire, police and other first responders.

The FCC last week announced an auction in January in what is called the 1900-megahertz band, well above the TV frequencies.

Computer industry observer Shelly Palmer said it could draw interest from holders of adjacent frequencies such as Sprint and Dish Network.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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