Bye-Bye Channel 51?

Last week, the FCC announced a procedural decision to freeze all pending applications for new low-power or full-power television broadcast stations on channel 51. The announcement also permits any of these pending applications to be modified within the next 60 days to request assignment to a lower channel.

Any discussion of television channels is complicated by the fact that each station broadcasts on a certain assigned channel, but that typically does not relate to the “channel” you tune to on your television. What we’re talking about here is the radio frequency (RF) channel, which assigns a block of the radio spectrum. Before the digital television transition, the RF channel and the tuner channel were the same; for digital transmissions, the tuner channel can be mapped to a different RF channel. Also as part of the digital transition, UHF channels 52 through 69 were taken out of service for television broadcasts and auctioned off to wireless services such as cell phones and wireless broadband.

Last spring, the licensees of the channel 52 blocks complained to the FCC that television broadcasts assigned to channel 51 were causing interference with their transmissions. Groups including the CTIA-The Wireless Association and the Rural Cellular Association (RCA) lobbied the FCC to shut down television transmissions on channel 51, and the federal agency agreed to look into the issue.

The current freezing of new applications for channel 51 is intended to stabilize the situation while the FCC studies the matter. The decision does not force any station to shut down or move to a different channel, though they can do so if they want. In fact, some wireless service companies actually paid television broadcasters to move from channels in the 52 to 69 range in advance of the digital transition, so that the wireless services could expand into those frequencies sooner. Apparently the FCC is open to similar financial incentives being offered to existing television broadcasters in this case as well.

This news does not presage the death of broadcast television, but it does illustrate how the game has been flipped upside down. Instead of being concerned with wireless transmissions interfering with television broadcasts, it would appear that the television broadcasts are taking a back seat to wireless interests. A strong case can be made that the wireless services may make better use of the radio spectrum — which is viewed as a public resource — than television, and it is likely that TV broadcasters will be under continued pressure to move to a shrinking pool of radio frequencies as time goes on.