A primer to the 600MHz spectrum auction

We’ve been talking for a bit about this spectrum auction that’s going to happen early next year. Everyone’s jockeying for the best position to either sell or buy pieces of the 600MHz block — the sellers are TV stations, the buyers are mobile network operators.

Wondering where all of this is coming from? Here’s a condensed history of the matter.


Wide shot of vision mixing panel in a television gallery.

In the US, previous to mid-2009, the overwhelming majority of TV stations broadcasted on Very High Frequencies, or VHF channels (channels 2 to 13, with a top frequency of 216MHz). Smaller operations or stations in areas of high VHF congestion signed on to Ultra High Frequencies (as of today, 14 to 51, with a top frequency of 698MHz).

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated a switch-over from analog TV transmission to digital transmission, forcing broadcasters to build digital transmitters in time for a 2006 deadline a deadline later extended twice). Many of them powered on during the early 2000s. Because analog TV was still in service at the time — and with so much VHF and lower UHF traffic anyways — DTV channel allotment was placed mostly in the upper range of the UHF spectrum. Analog and digital TV broadcasts ran concurrent with each other until the last of the analog transmitters shut down on June 12, 2009.

When those antennas were shut off, most stations on their digital channels remained at their UHF frequencies because the engineering, branding and legal hurdles of having all those stations move back to VHF made that move unfeasible.

Instead, TV stations used a virtual channel number. When viewers entered “2” on their remotes, they would see channel 2 programming, the TV listing would display as “2” and channel 2 wouldn’t have to re-brand, as in the case of New York City, as “channel 33,” — where its actual A/V frequencies lie. That saves hassle on the station’s part while the viewer is none the wiser of those machinations.

Thing is, once you get to channel 35 and above, that’s where you hit the 600MHz bamd. Even a couple of the channels below 35 can also reach into the 600MHz range in the right (or wrong) atmospheric and engineering conditions. If cellular networks want to be able to use that frequency, then TV stations will either have to move down the dial or give up the spectrum entirely.


Cell tower and city buildings at sunset

While TV stations were making room for DTV, wireless carriers — thrust with next-gen wireless standards back in the late 2000s — wanted more spectrum to deploy WiMAX and LTE with. After all, with the existing spectrum that networks had, they would face the same problem broadcasters had in making the transition to those technologies: no room to work with.

And so, the wireless industry lobbied for legislative changes to reorganize spectrum — mainly tamping down TV’s upper end frequencies. And the industry got it in, of all things, a 2012 extension of payroll tax credits.

The Obama administration signed The Efficient Use of Spectrum Act in 2012 to give wireless carriers the 700MHz band in addition to more of what they had in 800MHz, and thus taking away channels 52 to 83 from TV broadcasters. The FCC would carry this transition out through a complex auctions process like the one that will take place through the spring and summer (we cover more of that here). As an aside, this legislation is also the origin of efforts to initiate use of 5GHz LTE-U or unlicensed (and unregulated) spectrum and also E911.

The 700MHz auctions were a crazy dogfight that T-Mobile lost to AT&T and Verizon on — that’s why you’ve been hearing Big Magenta rattling the saber on this subject and snagging bits of the band from “Dumb and Dumber” as it can. That spectrum also got eaten up quickly to build out extremely advantageous broad-land LTE coverage. It left carriers — the top five of AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, Sprint and U.S. Cellular holding a combined subscriber count of more than 380 million in a nation of just over 320 million people — hungry for more.

And indeed, the wireless industry lobbied hard again, to the chagrin of broadcasters. They once more got additional spectrum from the FCC, which has the extended authority of running spectrum auctions through at least 2022. That additional spectrum is the 600MHz band we’re talking about. And we’re watching out for what’s up come next spring, when this race is finally starting.

So, that’s the reason why we’re here in one extremely bastardized capsule. You can learn more about the auction process going forward here.

Further reading: Efficient Use of Spectrum Act, TV channel frequencies, Digital Switchover Act, Telecommunications Act of 1996

This article was updated March 29, 2016.

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About The Author
Jules Wang
Jules Wang is News Editor for Pocketnow and one of the hosts of the Pocketnow Weekly Podcast. He came onto the team in 2014 as an intern editing and producing videos and the podcast while he was studying journalism at Emerson College. He graduated the year after and entered into his current position at Pocketnow, full-time.