FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly believes society is standing on the brink of a revolutionary 5G wireless technology that will generate countless innovations and utterly change the way we work, play, communicate and interact.
The commissioner said so at the Brooklyn 5G Summit this year, and his raves about 5G didn’t surprise observers. Among many implications of 5G is a possible repurposing of the C-band in the United States. That’s the 500 MHz of spectrum (3.7 to 4.2 GHz) currently used by broadcasters who receive programming via satellite downlink earth stations. The FCC has proposed giving wireless companies some portion of the spectrum for 5G wireless development. It is expected to take action on the matter before the end of 2019.
O’Rielly, 48, was nominated for a Republican seat on the FCC by President Barack Obama in 2013. He has been active in a number of radio-related policy issues on the FCC’s action list including AM revitalization, the quadrennial review, FM Class C4 and pirate radio. Radio World checked in with him recently on these issues.
Radio World: What do you see as the ideal split of the 500 MHz of C-band spectrum? What do you support?
Michael O’Rielly: Industry stakeholders have discussed different options, including the market-based approach that could repurpose 200 megahertz of spectrum relatively quickly while ensuring the incumbents will be accommodated. I hope the satellite incumbents who are willing to surrender their spectrum rights will be able to find a way to increase the amount to be reallocated to 300 or more megahertz.
As for the spectrum split I say between 200 and 300 MHz, but closer to 300 for wireless right now. I’ve testified to that fact. I think we’ll end up eventually in the 300 range to repurpose. We need to tee up even more mid-bands for review. It’s critically important that we look closely at those prime bands for 5G.
RW: Are you supportive of the C-Band Alliance proposal, which calls for 200 MHz for wireless and 300 for satellite earth-stations?
O’Rielly: I haven’t endorsed it. I’ve said some nice things about it. There are some nice parts to it. We are still trying to work through some things, like how much spectrum we are talking about, what is the auction mechanism and the band plan. There are pieces of it that are still open for consideration and that’s why I haven’t endorsed it.
RW: The proposal contains money for the repacking of the spectrum and moving broadcasters during a migration. Will whatever the FCC decrees contain some money for broadcasters to cover expenses of moving?
O’Rielly: Oh yes, it’s going to have to. And I’ve said as much all along. We are going to have to make sure broadcasters are made whole in any kind of repack. Repack is a term we use in incentive auctions, but it kind of functions here, too. We are going to relocate and retune the earth stations. Therefore that expense should be addressed.
What I have told the broadcast community, and I’ve done this in a thoughtful way, is not to be greedy. This is not an opportunity to make money, but rather a process to be made whole. And to make sure your services are not interrupted and mindful of how important use of the C-band is to your technology package. A number of broadcasters have told us they use some fiber in their operations already, but they want the redundancy of using satellite. They want both.
RW: Speaking of fiber, some of the wireless companies have told the commission they believe broadcasters could use fiber to replace the C-band for distribution of programming. Do you think that is in the public interest?
O’Rielly: No I don’t believe we will go down that path. I don’t believe forcing anyone to using just one technology is good. Broadcasters have highlighted the fact that having different redundant technology is crucial. Some wireless companies have even suggested using redundant fiber networks, but broadcasters have made it clear that they have seen nothing to make them want to go to just fiber. I’m respectful of that.
RW: There have been lots of other proposals floated for C-band repurposing. Have any of these stood out in your mind?
O’Rielly: There have been a lot of ideas put forward. And I think that signals that we are close to a decision point and a commonality. Different views are coalescing around different pieces. And now we see groups are fighting over specifics instead of generalities. There’s been less yelling at each other. That’s progress I think. But we still have work to do.
RW: Ideally, would the FCC like to see the stakeholders involved come to a consensus and get behind one of the compromises? And would that simplify the proceeding?
O’Rielly: That would be great if it worked out that way. I suspect it may not given the strong views involved. But as regulators, part of our job is to find the right outcome. In general, the outcome would be better if you had all sides on board, but here it seems unlikely. So we will find the right landing spot.
RW: What are your thoughts on congressional involvement on the C-band matter at this point? Would that complicate or simplify matters for the FCC?
O’Rielly: I always welcome congressional involvement, whether it is informal or legislation. Certainly I appreciate anytime Congress passes a statute and the president signs it. If it happens here if something is enacted, I would follow it to the letter. In the meantime, there are a lot of different views from Congress, just as there is from all the different parties, so we have to take all of them, digest them and rule on an outcome.
RW: Were you satisfied with the compromise solution expediting FM translator interference claims? What are your expectations?
O’Rielly: Generally yes. I think we are open to fine-tune it going forward. I think it addresses both sides of the issue. Some of the issues were unintended consequences of having all these new FM translators available and the growth of that service. So we want to make sure we don’t cause disruption and we want the process to be more simplistic and easy to use. We’ll see if in operation it works as we think it will.
RW: You’ve been instrumental, along with Chairman Ajit Pai, in making pirate radio take-downs a priority. Some broadcasters sense a slowdown in the FCC’s pursuit of pirates. What is your response to those assertions?
O’Rielly: Well, I would say to those claims that if any broadcaster is feeling that way, don’t worry. I’m still pushing as hard as I can. We do have some actions coming. At the same time there is legislation moving through Congress to provide the commission more tools that will be incredibly valuable.
I was just in New York working on the issue of pirate radio, specifically in the Bronx, and figuring out how to remove the enticement for groups to do pirate radio.
RW: Do you believe the recent joint action by the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts and the FCC signals increased interest by the DOJ to act? [In March the FCC Enforcement Bureau praised a civil action brought by the Justice Department, intended to prevent an unlicensed station from operating in Worcester.]
O’Rielly: I hope so. I wasn’t involved in that issue. I hope it will stir further compliance. Every little step matters.
RW: The Class C4 Notice of Inquiry hasn’t moved to NPRM stage yet. Do you expect that to happen soon and do you support that move?
O’Rielly: I would defer to the chairman to the timing of the item. I’ve been raising issues regarding the C4 proposal. What I have said publicly is that it is hard to move an item such as this that causes such consternation within an industry. And there are strong takes in favor and against. A number of broadcasters are strongly opposed. That is a harder thing to move in those instances, given the technical issues involved. So I don’t know the timing but I am suspect in terms of where we might go with it.
RW: The comment periods have been closed for some time on proposed changes to the Class A AM interference protection rules. Do you expect an order soon and what could it mean for AM going forward?
O’Rielly: Again, I’m not sure about the timing. The comments have been collected. I just don’t have a good insight on when the item moves forward. A lot of those pieces are still up in the air.
RW: Comments in the 2018 Quadrennial review were filed in March and April. What is the likely timeframe for an FCC decision in this proceeding? Will the timing be affected by litigation over previous quadrennial reviews still pending in a U.S. court of appeals? [Editor’s note: The FCC has defended its most recent rule changes against a challenge by Prometheus Radio Project.]
O’Rielly: I’d hope it’s not dependent on the Third Circuit because they haven’t had the mindset of the current marketplace for some time. They’ve been stuck in a previous time that we have all moved past. I hope we are not stuck waiting for their decision.
I think we can take some steps to move forward. Hopefully this year still, but that will be up to the chairman. But in the next six months I’m hoping we can move our quadrennial review ahead. We should have already done that considering our statutory requirement.
RW: The question of market definition is key to the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules and to the Department of Justice’s review of broadcast mergers. Should the DOJ define the relevant market for reviewing radio and TV station mergers in the same way as the FCC (or vice versa)?
O’Rielly: I don’t know about the same, but they need to update their current review, which I have criticized extensively. I have a deep concern. They are living in the past and have blocked a number of mergers that make sense.
I hope the workshop the DOJ put together on how digital advertising should affect its broadcast merger review will lead to the decision to change their definition of a marketplace.
RW: What changes would you like to see the FCC make to its broadcast ownership rules in the 2018 quadrennial?
O’Rielly: On the radio side of things, I think the subcaps are ripe for review and ripe for change. Ownership limits on the AM side are anarchistic. Allowing more consolidation of AM stations may be a key way to preserve this function.
And on the FM side we just need to find the sweet landing spot. There are larger ownership groups that are critical of NAB on their landing spot, but I think we will be able to find a number to make most entities happy, including the community at large.
We need to bring our rules up to date to reflect the current marketplace. Everyone is competing for audience. It’s not just radio versus radio, or versus TV. It includes all of the high-tech companies battling for the eyes and ears of the American public.
RW: Does your schedule slow down at all in summer?
O’Rielly: I wouldn’t call it a slowdown. We move our meeting in August up a bit and slide the September meeting back to create some space for vacation and family time. There’s nothing official about it. I do hope to take some time off and spend it with my daughters and family.