What should consumers know about changes coming to TV frequencies?
Do you watch free, over-the-air television using an antenna? You might have seen a notice from the FCC, a local organization, or your favorite TV channel that it's time to rescan your television. As the country moves through ten phases of the "broadcast repack," some stations are switching their frequencies to make more airwaves or "spectrum" available for wireless broadband and other uses. So which consumers are affected, and what should they know to make sure they can keep watching their favorite programs without interruption? And what sort of challenges are broadcasters, TV tower crews, and the FCC facing in this massive, nationwide undertaking. Joining Evan are Jean Kiddoo, Chair of the FCC's Incentive Auction Task Force, and Hillary DeNigro, Deputy Chair of the Incentive Auction Task Force. To find out when you should rescan your TV, go to FCC.gov/TVrescan or call 1-888-CALLFCC anytime from 8:00am to 1:00am ET and press 6 for rescan. (Disclaimer)
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Welcome to More Than Seven Dirty Words, the official FCC Podcast. I'm Evan Swarztrauber.
Do you watch free over the air television using an antenna? Well, you might have seen a notice from a local organization, the FCC or the station you're watching that you need to re-scan your television. So, what's going on and what's behind this broadcast re-pack? Joining me to discuss is Jean Kiddoo, Chair of the FCC's Incentive Auction Task Force. Jean, thanks for joining.
MS. KIDDOO: Thanks for having me.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And also joining is Hillary DeNigro, Deputy Chair of the Incentive Auction Tas Force. Hillary, thanks for joining us.
MS. DENIGRO: Hi there. Thanks for having me.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, before we dive into re-scanning your TV, always start the show the same way. Jean, how did you get to be the Chair of the Incentive Auction Task Force?
MS. KIDDOO: Well, I'd like to say that it was something I tried to achieve my whole life, Evan, but I was just lucky. I was in private practice as a lawyer practicing telecommunications law for over 30 years in firms in Washington and I practiced before the FCC as well as state regulatory commissions. And as I came sort of toward the end of my career I realized that I really wanted to do a little bit of public service. And I was lucky enough to be hired by the FCC. I had heard from friends who had been at the FCC, who had come into private practice, that the FCC was the most interesting and stimulating job that they'd ever had. And I thought it was a good opportunity for me to be able to experience it. And I must say that in my four and a half years here that prediction has come true. I have really been amazed at the caliber and intelligence and responsibility and dedication of the people that I've had the privilege to work with here.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: That's great. But I just want to be clear when you were asked in first grade what your dream job is, it was not Chair of the FCC's Incentive Auction Task Force.
MS. KIDDOO: Unlike some former chairmen that's correct.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Very disappointing. And, Hillary, how did you get to be Deputy Chair?
MS. DENIGRO: I have longer tenure than Jean here at the Commission. I've been with the Commission for about 18 years now and I've had a lot of different roles. I think Jean is right. It's an exciting job. It's an exciting place to work. There's always a lot of new and compelling projects to get involved in.
This project was something I was asked to work on when I was with the Media Bureau (phonetic) to help plan the transition that we're going through now and have been on the task force now for about three years walking through both the planning and now the implementation of the transition.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So, for those Americans that don't have the privilege and pleasure of constantly following the world of telecom what's going on? Why are they getting these messages saying, re-scan your TV at "X" time?
MS. KIDDOO: Well, Evan, important changes are coming to over-the-air television. Viewers who watch TV with an antenna, either a roof top or an indoor antenna are going to need to re-scan their televisions to pick up new frequencies. We are re-arranging the broadcast spectrum for television providers in order to free up a scarce resource which is radio waves. There are fewer and fewer of them available and more and more demands on them and so we try to be as efficient as we can in how we allocate them and we have now re-organized the TV bands in order for us to be able to free up spectrum for new wireless mobile broadband uses. More capacity, new 5G technologies that are coming on line all need air waves. And so we are re-organizing TV to make that space available.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. Consumers, you've been watching a lot of video on your phones over the past few years and the demand for mobile broadband has just gone up exponentially so this is one thing that Congress and the FCC decided they would rearrange some of the spectrum to free up airwaves for mobile broadband. And why is there available spectrum for TV that maybe there wouldn't have been 20 years ago if we had tried to contemplate something similar?
MS. KIDDOO: Well, two things have happened. About 10 years ago we reorganized and converted television broadcasting from an analog process to a digital transmission system. That created additional capacity and that's why if you're an over-the-air viewer you've seen additional channels coming on line. So --
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Multicast.
MS. KIDDOO: Multicast or subchannels which each TV station that had one six megahertz television analog channel was now able, once it went digital, to broadcast even four, maybe even five channels on the same amount of spectrum. So, they become more efficient, able to broadcast more. And that's why we're seeing all these multicast channels.
We also realized that there was space between the broadcast channels that we didn't need anymore and we could compact the space a bit and be able to squeeze more broadcasting to less frequencies which is our scarce resource. So, that's how we managed to do it.
We also incentivized a number of broadcasters to relinquish their channels to be able to turn them back in. Most of them, the majority of them are now broadcasting and sharing a multicast channel with other stations so they're able to continue to be on the air but they relinquished their channel to us and we were able then to turn that around and make that channel available to wireless carriers.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And, of course, the incentive we're talking about is money. And there were wireless carriers like your cell phone company. There were others that bid on this spectrum. Some cable companies, satellite as well so they bid on the spectrum and then correct me if I'm wrong, a combination of some money going to the broadcasters and then some money going to the U.S. Treasury. Do you have the top line numbers there?
MS. KIDDOO: I have the top line numbers. The top line numbers are big. Let me back up just one step for listeners.
The way that we reallocated the spectrum was to hold an auction and it was a complicated auction where we offered to buy spectrum from broadcasters and then turn around and sell it to wireless carriers in the same auction. And it was complicated because we didn't know what we were going to be able to sell to wireless carriers until the broadcasters came in and bid on our auction.
We accomplished this. It took about a year to do it but we raised nearly $20 billion from wireless carriers which we were then able to turn around and pay the auction price for broadcasters who were relinquishing their channels which is a little bit over $10 billion. We also raised enough money to cover our cost to help stations who were remaining on the air but were going to be asking to move their frequencies to cover their costs of doing that with about $7.3 billion left over to the U.S. Treasury for deficit reduction. So, we think it was a really successful auction.
We encouraged broadcasters to relinquish spectrum. We capitalized a lot of their business to be able to have them expand and offer new services. The majority of them remaining on the air. We're compensating the broadcasters who we've made move channels which is expensive. It costs money to buy new antennas and new transmitters. So, we need to reimburse them. And we had a lot of money left over for the Treasury and deficit reduction.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And unlike the 2009 digital TV transition when correct me if I'm wrong, it was essentially an all-in-one situation. The whole country almost went to digital at the same exact time. This is different which is why it's important that consumers are notified because we got 10 phases, right. So, how does a consumer now or someone listening to this know when do I re-scan? Is it this month? Is it next month? Is it a year from now? How can they figure this out?
MS. KIDDOO: Any station that we've asked to -- we've asked about 1,000 stations nationwide to change frequencies. So, there are about 1,000 stations that are affected by this. What we've asked them to do is to make sure that the notify their viewers of the changes that are coming and when their particular change will take place. And they notify their viewers through either on-screen crawls which are those text messages that go across the top or the bottom of a television screen and public service announcements and they do that at least 30 days in advance of their re-scan day. And so viewers will start to see that.
Now, importantly, all viewers of that channel will see those messages because they're on the station's feed. So, every viewer will see it. But only the viewers who watch with a TV antenna will be affected and need to take action. If a viewer subscribes to cable or satellite service the viewer doesn't need to do anything but cable or satellite provider will take care of that in its network and the viewer doesn't need to do that. But if you have an antenna and you watch free over-the-air TV you'll need to take action when that re-scan day comes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And the way you explain this it makes it sounds like it was so simple because you explain it succinctly but this is not simply, this is complicated. And it started with a law passed in 2012 by Congress directing the FCC to do the auction and we do the auction and things have to be moved around.
So, Hillary, I want to bring you in because this eco system is not just, you know, the FCC wireless carriers and some stations that are affected. There's all sorts of other stakeholders involved in this. The people that make antennas, the tower crews that, of course, Commissioner Carr's office are very familiar with that have to climb these towers and replace the antennas. So, what sort of coordination are you and the task force doing to get all these people together and make sure everyone is talking to each other?
MS. DENIGRO: You're absolutely right.
This is a very complicated process and we envisioned it as being a phased process in order to account for the resource limitations that are inherent in the tower climbing industry and the antenna manufacturing industry that you've noted. And also the interference concerns that are implicated when you move television stations from one frequency to another.
We started a year before the auction ended in trying to account for all of these issues and got some top-level applied mathematicians involved in taking account of all the different data points that we need to make room for in order to make this work. And we gathered data from the industry participants at the ground level from tower crews to manufacturers to broadcasters and we put together two tools. One that told us what order the stations needed to move in in order to avoid interference concerns and another to account for the amount of time each of the different tasks related to a transition, a construction project really would take. The planning for that construction project. The permitting for it. How long people would have to be on the tower to get an antenna down and put a new antenna up. And we allowed for contingencies, the unknowns that come from weather and unexpected delays in construction projects.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes. And a 1,000 foot tower weather is obviously, extremely important. The dangerous concerns are much different when you're dealing with 1,000 or 2,000 foot broadcast tower as opposed to a 50 foot wireless monopole.
MS. DENIGRO: Exactly.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And we've already heard from some crews about weather challenges and obviously the task force is constantly in contact with these crews and these stations to account for these concerns.
MS. DENIGRO: Exactly. We've got a flexibility within our plan to look at the needs of a station that's faced some of these challenges and we've made hundreds and hundreds of changes to the plan on individual bases concerning the particular needs of that station and how to keep the station on air while the transition still proceeds without causing interference to other stations. And we're going to continue to look at those issues.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And I just asked Hillary about all the various industry stakeholders that are involved. Jean, who at the FCC is involved in this? I mean, people who are familiar with the FCC might think, okay, this is broadcasting. So, it's the media bureau but, you know, how has the agency dealt with this?
MS. KIDDOO: This has been a massive effort that has involved virtually every corner of the commission over the course of the project. Obviously, the wireless bureau was intimately involved in all of the issues that had to do with allocating the spectrum and selling it to the wireless carriers. Their Auctions Division which is in our Office of Economics and Analytics was involved in actually running and planning for the auction. We had an unbelievable optimization team to do all of the complicated calculations that Hillary was mentioning in terms of how were we going to organize these and re-pack these stations into a small band. Incredibly complicated. The media bureau obviously as you say is the most obvious one because it was the broadcast incentive auction and their constituency is the broadcast industry.
The Office of Economics and Technology was involved in all of the complicated interference issues. Consumer and Governmental Affairs is involved because there's a very substantial viewer concern here that we need to make sure we accommodate and make sure viewers understand what's happening. So, basically the entire commission which is why the commissioners set up a task force back in 2012 was to really undertake this and be able to coordinate and manage all of these different aspects of the commission in one place. They all had to function together and one of the things that I want to mention is that the FCC actually won the Franz Edelman Award in Operations Research and Analytics last year. That award is given by the association called Informs which is the association for Analytics and Operations Research and it's kind of a Nobel Prize in the field and is highly, highly respected. And the FCC actually won it which is quite an achievement for a Government agency and a recognition of just how complicated and data-intensive this project was and how the FCC had really accomplished what I think back in 2012 many skeptics thought was totally impossible. And the auction was a tremendous success. As I said, it did exactly what we wanted it to do. It made 84 megahertz of valuable spectrum available to wireless carriers. It's accommodating all of the broadcast carriers or broadcast stations and we really achieved the kind of efficiency that we wanted to achieve.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And some listeners might have seen news stories about wireless carriers helping stations move early so that they can deploy a wireless broadband and 600 megahertz band and when we think about, you know, the transition to 5G it's going to be a mix of low, mid and high bands. It's not just these super high bands that you might have heard the FCC auctioning recently, 600 megahertz is also going to come into play. It also helps with alleviating some of the congestion caused by wireless -- relieve some of the congestion caused by people watching a ton of video and all the, you know, band with intensive data consumption that's been going on.
Where do things stand now? So, we mentioned that there's this 10 phase process as we sit here on April 5th discussing this topic, where are we at?
MS. KIDDOO: So, the auction ended in April of 2015, 2017, sorry. It seems longer ago than two years. So, 2017. And we then went into our post auction three-year transition phase where we assigned channels to one of ten phases. As you said the digital conversion of 10 years ago all happened on the same day. That can't happen here because we have daisy chains of stations with interference considerations that we had to accommodate which means that in some instances in order for Channel 12 to move to Channel 14 the Channel 14 station needed to move to Channel 9 and they couldn't all do that at one time. It had to be carefully choreographed and sequenced and so we are in that three-year process. We are now in Phase 2 out of the 10. So, we've had a number of stations move. As you said, we had some stations that were incentivized by wireless carriers to move early, even before our Phase 1. So, we have moved a lot of stations already and we're going to be continuing that. The last phase ends in July of 2020 so another year and a couple months.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Got it. And, of course, things are going well. The FCC did win an award but something of this scale does not happen without challenges. So, Hillary, you know, just in your experience working on this, what has been the biggest challenge that you've faced? Or some of the biggest challenges. You mentioned weather and other things but anything more related to your basically your day job?
MS. DENIGRO: Yes. I think that the weather challenges are quite real and we're going to be keeping an eye on that. I think everybody is well aware that we've had some severe weather incidents in many, many, DMAs, Designated Market Areas nationwide and we've had to keep a close eye on how that's affecting our roll out.
In addition to that, the linked station sets that we've got to transition are a priority for us. That's the daisy chain that Jean was referring to. That's where one station can't move on its own without being cognizant of the plans of the stations that will either cause or receive interference as a result of their move.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Kind of like a domino effect?
MS. DENIGRO: Exactly like a domino effect. And those stations know who they are and some of the groups are rather large and they need to coordinate with one another in a manner that is cooperative and gets to an end result that has everyone achieve what they need to achieve. So, we're going to be working very closely with stations in these link sets as we go through some of the upcoming phases 4, 5 and 6 on our horizon in particular.
All the stations have been assigned to regions and each one has a regional coordinator and those regional coordinators have been actively working with stations in the link sets already. And are going to continue to reach out to them proactively to make sure we know what's going on and that no one overlooked stations that are in those link sets or fail to coordinate a plan that could have implications for other stations. So, I think those are the things we're going to be looking really closely at as we go into the next few phases.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: All right. So to close out the show let's take it back to what the average person might need to know about this, of course. So I already made an error in the prep for this show so it just shows that this is complicated and let's bust some mitts.
So, Jean, channels are not changing, correct? If I am a viewer and I watch Channel 4 and it's my favorite channel when I re-scan Channel 4 isn't going to be on Channel 10, right? So, what would happen if I didn't change it?
MS. KIDDOO: So, you're absolutely right and that's an important thing for viewers to understand is that the channels that they're used to tuning to for their favorite shows are still going to be the same channel. Channel 4 is going to remain Channel 4. But is happening is behind the scenes in your television. And the television right now reaches out. When you tune to Channel 4 it reaches out and pulls Channel 4's current frequency from the airwaves. And that's not Channel 4, that's a different frequency. And TV learns to recognize that when you scan it and then when you turn to Channel 4 that's what it pulls.
If Channel 4 changes its frequency and your TV hasn't been scanned when you turn to your Channel 4 to get your favorite program it's going to reach out and there's not going to be any Channel 4 there. And so you'll get a bare screen. You know, that gray fuzz that comes on the TV screen until your TV is trained to find the frequency that Channel 4 is now broadcasting on. And that takes a fairly simply process. It's a re-scan process. Everybody who has a digital TV or an analog TV converter box had to scan that TV or converter box when they got it to be able to pull the stations off the air.
TVs are not shipped from the factor knowing where they're going and what local stations they're going to have to pick up over the air so your TV has to be scanned to do that. It's a good idea to scan your TV every once in awhile even without this process because the TVs often times as we talked about, there's lots of sub-channels, multicast channels that are on line that have come on line since many viewers probably bought their TVs and certainly since they got their analog converter boxes back in 2009. So, if they haven't re-scanned their TV in awhile chances are they'll find that there's a lot more channels available than they thought they had.
But certainly in this context, in our transition con text if a viewer sees a notice saying you need to re-scan your TV on such and such a day that will need to happen in order to continue to receive that channel. And if you don't and if you see a channel that goes missing, if you're used to watching Channel 4 and all of a sudden you don't see it you may have missed the notices. It's always a good idea, the first thing you should do is to re-scan your TV and it's a simple process.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Of course everything we just said applies to people using an antenna to watch this television. If you are a cable subscriber or you watch cable through a set top box or through your telephone company or through a satellite company this will not affect you. You will just continue watching it and you don't have to listen to anything. And there's a reason that I waited until 20 minutes into the show to say that because I wanted to string you along.
So, for more information where can people go to figure out what's going on? Maybe they have not been watching recently and didn't see the PSAs or whatever. I mean, where can they go to get the most up to date information.
MS. KIDDOO: We have a couple of resources available.
First of all, let me just repeat that re-scanning your TV is not a hugely complicated thing. Basically, you take your remote and you go to the menu or setup button and you then look for something that says antenna or channel and it will say auto tune or auto scan and it takes three or four minutes and the TV runs through the stations and finds all the channels on their current frequencies and you're good to go.
But if you have confusion about that or you need more information we do have on our website a lot of information about how to re-scan and what's happening. That address is fcc.gov/tvrescan. There's even a very handy interactive digital TV map available linked to that site which a viewer can put in their home address and pull up all of the station that should be available with a roof top antenna in that area and be able to know what channels are moving. Which ones are what we call re-packed stations. And what the time frame is that they should be listening for the re-scan messages from those stations. And hopefully all of that information will get them to where they need to go. But if there's still confusion or issues and someone needs help we also have set up a dedicated consumer call center that is fully staffed from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Eastern time. So, no matter what time zone you're in, prime time is available, help is available if you tune in in prime time and don't have your favorite channel available and you need help.
The number there is 1-888-CALLFCC. 1-888-CALLFCC and we have folks -- if you press 6 for Re-scan, standing by to help.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And we will put that information in the show notes for today's episode. Just a friendly PSA to the millennials listening. Free over the air television is neither illegal nor is it a super sweet life hack that you just figure it out. It's been around since before you were born and so this information does apply to you as well.
But that's it for today. My guests have been Jean Kiddoo, Chair of the FCC's Incentive Auction Task Force. Jean, thanks for joining.
MS. KIDDOO: Thanks for having us.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And Hillary DeNigro, Deputy Chair of the Incentive Auction Task Force. Hillary, thanks for joining.
MS. DENIGRO: Thank you very much.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: You can find this Podcast in Itunes or Google Play or wherever you get your Podcasts. Please leave us a review because it will help others find this show.