The following message was sent by President David Glassman and Jack Neal, the general manager on WEIU TV to all EIU faculty and staff on Tuesday, Jan. 5:
Dear University Community,
Below is a message from Jack Neal, General Manager of our WEIU TV station and network. Although the message is quite long, I ask that you read it. It contains important information about an opportunity that I am considering relative to our WEIU spectrum and the digital environment we exist in today. We will be holding a public forum on Thursday, January 7 from 4–6 pm in the Tarble Arts Center Atrium for anyone interested in learning more about the FCC Spectrum auction. Jack Neal will be available to offer his insights and to answer any questions.
I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone in the University community that we live in a highly connected digital world. Nearly everything we do connects us online in one way or the other. In fact, I’m confident that most of you reading this email right now are doing so thanks to a wi-fi connection. The need to increase our digital connectivity in America increases at an amazing rate - nearly doubling each year. And no one sees that need decreasing in the future.
The United States Congress voted to increase our country’s digital connectivity and charged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with finding ways to free up bandwidth in specialized frequency bands. Frequencies that are advantageous to cell signals and wi-fi. The FCC will then sell that bandwidth to companies requiring it. Most recently the bidders in other auctions of spectrum have included AT&T, Verizon, Dish, Sprint, etc. And those auctions of various parts of the frequency spectrum have raised many billions of dollars.
About two years ago, the FCC began planning to shrink the size of America’s television band and make a part of that spectrum available for auction. The methodology to do so is far more involved than you’d like to read in this email. However the bottom line is the FCC has asked for TV stations to volunteer to auction their frequencies. When that process is over, much of the upper UHF band will be clear of broadcasters. Some will have gone off the air and the others will have had their assigned channels changed (repacked) into lower frequencies deemed less desirable by digital cell providers.
Eastern Illinois University holds the license for WEIU-TV. WEIU operates on channel 50, the highest channel in the current allotment of television frequencies. We sit very much in the middle of what might be referred to as “digital beachfront property”. The translation is that one way or the other, WEIU-TV will need to leave channel 50 when this process concludes.
The auction of television spectrum being undertaken nationally is set to begin later this year. The current start date is March 29. However there have been numerous dates that have “slipped” and there’s always the possibility this one will as well.
Nearly all TV broadcasters in the U.S. have received an opening bid by the FCC for what is a “reverse auction”. Basically that’s just terminology that means you start with the highest possible bid and the bids will decrease from there. The bids will be made by the FCC to attempt to free up an undisclosed amount of digital spectrum in undisclosed parts of the country. Holders of that spectrum (TV stations) will either stay in the bidding process as the bids for their channels drop, or at some point, they will determine the FCC’s bids are too low to justify selling. At that time, they will pull out of the active bidding.
When enough stations have left the bidding process that the FCC has the spectrum it needs in the areas it requires at the lowest possible price, it will close the auction and then purchase the channels of those TV stations that have remained in the auction. Then the FCC will package the frequencies in geographic areas and resell the spectrum in a forward auction.
The stations that sell their spectrum will go off the air within 60 days. The stations that are not sold will be moved to other channel assignments and have 39 months to rebuild their transmission facilities on those new channels. That timeline is open to MUCH discussion but it’s the current plan.
As with almost all full-power stations, WEIU has received our “opening bid.” That bid is approximately $105,400,000. That would mean that if the FCC were to include WEIU in the auction, the bidding would start there.
OK, now that you’ve screamed, “SELL!”, a note of reality. There is NO guarantee WEIU would even get a bid. And it’s definite that the bids will drop from the opening bid…A HUGE AMOUNT! How far we have no way of knowing. It could be anything between $105 million and zero. The opening bids were set to create station interest, and I believe they worked.
There are many questions for EIU to consider but there is one very definite point, and that is, if EIU wants to even consider being involved in the auction, the University is required to file by the FCC deadline of January 12th at 5PM. There are no extensions, no delays and no arguments that “The dog ate the application.” If we want to see how this would play out, we need to formally file by that date.
If at any point between now and the actual beginning of the active bidding process currently scheduled for late March, 2016, we want to opt out, we can. The question of our potential involvement is currently being considered by Dr. Glassman.
What would happen if WEIU-TV sold its spectrum?
We would go off the air within sixty days. The transmitter would be turned off and WEIU would no longer be available as an on-air, cable or satellite broadcast channel. The traditional transmission vehicle for getting that TV programming out to our viewers would no longer exist.
However, it’s important that we realize that media has changed greatly over the years since WEIU signed on the air. We are now (and always have been) content providers. We acquire, process and disseminate information. There was a time that a content provider needed a printing press to get their story told. Later content providers worked through broadcast transmitters…first radio and then TV. And though all those forms of transmission of content still exist, they are less important than the days when there were relatively few options.
Now, we have online, streaming, social media, YouTube and a wealth of platforms with which to tell our story.
And that is likely how the content we create at WEIU-TV would be disseminated in a post-spectrum auction environment. Our productions such as NewsWatch, This Is Our Story, Being Well, City Spotlight, and in fact, all of our local productions would be available to audiences online. We would seek cooperative agreements to have other Illinois public broadcasters air those stories on their facilities. We would seek similar arrangements with MediaCom and Consolidated Communications. And the programs would continue to be aired on Consolidated Cable through our Your 13 channel.
Essentially, the overwhelming majority of local stakeholders would continue to have access to those programs as would our international web audience.
What about WEIU’s PBS programming?
WEIU would no longer have the vehicle to air PBS or any other national programming. However, WEIU is part of a multi-station PBS market. That means that even without WEIU’s signal, PBS programs would continue to be seen in our market on our neighboring PBS stations. And much as WEIU is considering its online possibilities, nearly all PBS programs are currently available online directly from PBS.org.
There’s much more involved in the auction, and I’ve already put well more into this email than most would want to read, I’m sure. I just believe it’s important that, as EIU takes a look at the options, all our community and University stakeholders are aware of the many considerations. Complicating the issue is the fact that the FCC will enforce a “Quiet Period” beginning January 12th and not ending until the conclusion of both the reverse and forward auctions (likely third quarter of 2016). During the Quiet Period no licensee can discuss the process nor their potential involvement in it due to anti-collusion laws.
In order to consider the process, Dr. Glassman has scheduled a public forum on Thursday, January 7 from 4-6 pm in the Tarble Arts Center Atrium where anyone interested in learning more about it can do so as well as offer their own thoughts and opinions. I’ll be there to offer my insight and to answer any questions.
I encourage you to attend.