The money set aside by Congress to help radio stations impacted by the repack of television stations has begun flowing from Washington to broadcasters around the country. The Federal Communications Commission has so far allocated $17,219,711 to help the owners of FM stations co-located with television transmitters build auxiliary facilities to help keep their programming on the air – even when work on the TV station is being done.
“We expect that the level of reimbursement requests will increase substantially over the next few months as stations completing their transition submit final invoices and the program begins to reimburse LPTV, TV translator and FM stations,” said FCC Incentive Auction Task Force Chair Jean Kiddoo and Deputy Chair Hillary DeNigro in a blog post.
Under the 39-month television repack process, a total of 987 stations will be assigned to new channels. The work being done on those stations’ transmitters has meant co-located FMs are often unintended victims, forced to turn off their transmitters while work is being done to ensure the safety of tower crews. In order to help FMs remain on the air, broadcasters convinced Congress to create a dedicated fund from the billions it will receive in auctioning the TV spectrum. The $50 million set aside for the first year of the repack reimbursements will go to radio stations to help cover their costs to build backup sites. Additional funding could come in a second round.
In an update released this week, the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force and Media Bureau say 93 FM stations have so far applied for reimbursement funding. After reviewing the applications and documents backing up their costs, the FCC says all but six stations were approved for funding. In an attempt to root out any potential waste, fraud or abuse of the program, the fund administrator reviewed each of the submitted cost estimates and the FCC says it ultimately approved paying 92.5% of the $18.6 million broadcasters had sought in reimbursements. The agency is sending emails alerting each station how much it will receive and any explanation for why its full request may not have been met. “We believe that an initial allocation in an equivalent amount for FM stations will permit those FM stations to undertake projects to reasonably minimize disruption of their service,” the Task Force and Media Bureau said.
The latest estimate from the FCC is that fewer than 500 radio stations will be affected by the television spectrum repack. That is nearly 200 less than once feared. And some of the stations affected may opt to simply endure a few hours off the air rather than go through the effort to build a backup transmitter site.
How much broadcasters will receive from the repack fund will depend on how much work they need in order to remain on the air. Earlier this year the FCC released a cost catalog that included the range of money it expects to pay for various equipment and services. Among the costs the FCC will cover are equipment and engineering expenses for work done on a main antenna, as well as the construction of an auxiliary transmitter site to allow the station to stay on the air. The FCC would also cover expenses related to STLs and “soft costs” such as project management fees. Under the order adopted, only stations licensed and on the air on April 13, 2017 using the facilities impacted by the repack will be eligible to receive any reimbursement.
The FCC also alerted broadcasters that it may take “several weeks” for a station to receive the funding once its application has been approved. “It is therefore important that eligible FM stations seeking reimbursement timely submit invoices after incurring costs,” it said. A percentage of the total will also be held back in order to help reduce the possibility that the FCC may need to “claw back” any money it allocates to a station that ultimately doesn’t need as much as initially estimated in order to make an auxiliary site operational.
Full Steam Ahead
The ambitious timeline created to complete the television repack process has been among the hurdles facing broadcasters and the FCC. The ten-phase repack schedule began in April 2017 and the process is now ahead of schedule. The FCC says six of the ten phases are now completed and “dozens” of the stations signed to the seventh phase have already completed their move ahead of the Jan. 17, 2020 deadline. By the agency’s count, a total of 697 of the 987 stations to be repacked have already moved, representing 71% of the total. And it anticipates another 80 more TV stations will join that list by mid-January.
In addition to the technical aspects of the television repack, the FCC also continues a public education effort to tell TV viewers that they need to rescan their over-the-air TVs after their market is repacked to be able to see their local stations. It reports its webpage about the repack has received more than 2.1 million hits to date.
Radio is also helping spread the word. The FCC says its team has had conducted more than 1,700 interviews with local stations reaching an estimated audience of over 4.5 million listeners. Once the repack is completed, the FCC will conduct an auction of the spectrum to wireless carriers who plan to use it to create new 5G wireless services and ease congestion on existing networks.