D.C. Comes to Las Vegas

Transmission Towers on Mt. Wilson in California

It’s that time of year again when Las Vegas is overrun with dark suits. They’re from the government, and they’re here to help … shed some light on what’s going on with broadcast policy in Washington, D.C.

“Obviously, the spectrum auction is the biggest thing for the television industry,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of Communications for NAB. “The other big one for TV is retransmission consent. NAB spends an inordinate amount of time fighting to preserve fair compensation from retransmission consent. … For radio, it’s the performance royalty issue and getting FM chips activated on smartphones.”

Verizon and Apple are refusing to activate FM chips in their smartphones to prevent competition with their own subscription services, Wharton said. He characterized the situation as a “public safety issue” with regard to lifeline information.

“Cellphone and Internet services always crash in lifeline situations, but if you have an activated FM chip, the broadcast architecture is always on. FEMA Director Craig Fugate has publicly endorsed activation of those chips,” Wharton said.

Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communications and a leading advocate of getting FM-enabled wireless devices in smartphones, will participate in Tuesday’s session “Radio’s Most Innovative presented by Jacobs Media.”

Pirate radio is the primary enforcement issue at the commission, Chairman Tom Wheeler told Congress in March. The FCC, which has been criticized for the impact of reductions in its field enforcement offices, recently issued an enforcement advisory to educate mayors, local advertisers, landlords and others about the problem of pirate radio.

Wheeler will sit down with veteran broadcaster and former NAB TV Board Chair Marci Burdick for a question and answer session on Wednesday at 9 a.m. Congress also is the bulwark of performance royalties, a cause célèbre of the record industry. Congress has historically said no to royalties “because of the sheer promotional value of radio play,” Wharton said.

Royalties will be part of the discussion in the 10 a.m. Wednesday session, “Intrigue in a Changing Music Licensing World.”

With regard to AM radio revitalization, the FCC passed an order last fall to help licensees overcome increasing interference from wireless devices and other noise sources. The order opened the door for more AM licensees to build translators in the FM band. More than 500 applications were filed, and 400 granted, as of late March, according to remarks delivered by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai at the Hispanic Radio Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Pai is on deck Tuesday morning at NAB Show to speak on the top TV issue, at least one aspect of it. He will join broadcast transmission expert Jay Adrick, AT&T’s Joan Marsh, T-Mobile’s Steve Sharkey and RF consultant Joseph Davis for Tuesday morning’s session “Making It Back Down the Mountain: Repacking Broadcasters Following a Successful Incentive Auction.”

Pai, one of two Republicans on the commission, parted ways with the majority when it established incentive auction procedures last August. The native Kansan blasted the order for preserving two UHF channels for unlicensed devices rather than accommodating more low-power TV and translator licensees, and for sticking some broadcasters in the wireless band.

Marsh, AT&T’s vice president of Federal and Regulatory Affairs, expressed concern that the upcoming repack was more complicated than people realized.

It is far more complex than the one completed in 2006 for the DTV transition because crucial information will not be available until after the auction closes. Only then will the FCC know how many TV stations it has to repack, and how many channels it has to repack them in. Affected vendors expect a tidal wave of orders. Some question if they can handle it.

Adrick helped author a report on the subject for NAB that warned of a shortage of engineering resources and tower personnel. T-Mobile later disputed. Davis is a consultant whose expertise will be on the front line of demand. His greatest concern is the 39-month deadline to finish the repack.

“The short timeframe coupled with an insufficient number of qualified tower crews and the manufacturing time for antennas: in order for that to even begin, there will be backlogs in the planning process for RF consulting engineers — my line of work — and structural engineers to sort things out.”

Davis said the last-minute, involuntary nature of the repack will lead to a “perfect storm” of conflicting demands after the auction.

The repack session will commence Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. That same day at 2:30 p.m., FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will provide introductory remarks, followed by a panel discussion moderated by former FCC Chief of Staff and Senior Legal Advisor Adonis Hoffman, about “The Challenge of Reporting on Race in America.”

Wharton elaborated. “It’s something we looked at in light of Ferguson, [Mo.,] and Baltimore, in terms of best practices for reporting race issues without inciting the community,” he said. “It’s not intended to dictate or censor coverage,” Wharton said of the session. “It’s just a way to offer suggestions from people who’ve been in the trenches in these kind of incidents, to discuss what does work and doesn’t work when there’s a really sensitive issue playing out live in the community.”

Other regulatory sessions will cover changes in the Emergency Alert System, pointers for handling political advertising and the future of video delivery.