By Liam Sigaud
May 16, 2018 at 5:00 am ET
Important changes are coming as early as this fall to local broadcast TV stations that provide news, weather, entertainment and emergency information to millions of American households.
Nearly 1,000 TV stations across the country — with a nationwide audience of 77 million Americans — will be transitioning to new frequencies from 2018 to 2020, and viewers will have to reprogram their TVs to keep up.
These changes are being made as a result of a broader effort to expand resources available for wireless networks. As consumers have become increasingly reliant on wireless services to live, work and communicate, the demand for broadband connectivity has exploded. In 2016, mobile data use in the United States was 35 times the volume of traffic in 2010, and all signs point to even greater consumption in the years ahead. Some experts estimate that the number of internet-connected devices will nearly double from 2016 to 2021.
Next generation wireless services – called 5G services – are being planned to meet this surging consumer broadband demand. Once built, these services are predicted to add $1.2 trillion in additional consumer benefits. However, this highspeed wireless network will require considerably more spectrum.
In order to free up additional spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission launched an “incentive auction” in 2016 to repurpose spectrum for new uses. The auction allowed broadcasters to sell their spectrum (channels) or share spectrum with another station. Wireless service providers could then bid for the newly available spectrum.
The auction generated nearly $20 billion in revenue, of which $10 billion was used to compensate broadcasters that vacated spectrum and $7 billion was deposited to the U.S. Treasury to help reduce the federal budget deficit. But along the way, hundreds of broadcasters that did not get anything out of the auction are also being forced to relocate to different channels. This expensive and time-consuming process is called “repacking.”
Broadcasters raised concerns that Congress had not allocated enough funding to cover the costs of involuntary repacking. A few months ago, Congress authorized additional funding to help broadcasters move to new channels; other provisions were included to encourage wireless broadband and identify additional spectrum for future auctions.
But where does all this leave TV viewers?
First, it’s important to note that repacking will only affect over-the-air, antenna-based TV stations; cable and satellite TV networks will automatically provide the correct feed for channels getting repacked.
Second, no new devices, equipment or services will be needed. Viewers will only have to rescan their TV (or converter box) when their TV stations change frequencies. Since broadcasters will be moving at different times over the next two years, viewers may need to rescan their TV more than once. While it might sound like an inconvenience, it’s really a very simple process that will just take viewers a couple of minutes.
In the end, wireless providers will have more of the spectrum they need to rollout the next generation of faster and better wireless broadband services – 5G services. As for over-the-air TV viewers, the National Association of Broadcasters offers detailed instructions to help viewers navigate this process and the timing of the channel moves in your area, which will may the transition to new broadcast channels more manageable.
Liam Sigaud writes for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization.
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