Auctioning off the airwaves

When Steven Fite first joined the board of the Blacktail TV Tax District as a volunteer in 1998, television reception in the Flathead Valley was terrible.

"That was all we were used to—snowy pictures," Fite says.

After joining Blacktail, Fite began rebuilding all five of the tax district's television translators, which relay signals from broadcast stations in Missoula, Spokane and Kalispell to homes throughout the Flathead. And he has continued to help maintain and improve Blacktail's service, working to preserve free and quality television access for those—such as himself—who can't afford satellite or cable. Now, however, he's afraid that access is in jeopardy.

The threat is an upcoming congressionally mandated Federal Communications Commission auction that will allow wireless communications companies to buy what are currently television channels. During the auction, which will occur next year, the FCC will purchase some existing channels from television stations, reconfigure the airwaves to squeeze television broadcasters within a narrower range of the spectrum and sell off the newly open territory to wireless carriers. The result will be more air space for smartphones and less for television, which will likely end at channel 31 or 38 instead of at 51, as it does now.

click to enlarge television, FCC, Steven Fite, KPAX, KECI, KTMF, montana, news

With funding from the FCC, many full-power broadcasters—a category that includes stations like KPAX, KECI and KTMF—will relocate to new channels. Meanwhile, translators like Blacktail's and low-power television stations that serve small communities will be left to fend for themselves. Like Fite, Charlie Cannaliato is concerned about how they'll fare.

Cannaliato, who spent 33 years as the head engineer at KECI, is on the board of the National Translators Association and maintains some 60 translators across the state. According to a study he conducted, at least 24 of Montana's 424 translators and low-power stations will go off the air if the FCC sells off the channels above 38. The Flathead Valley, where the airwaves are crowded, will be especially affected.

"We recognize the importance of over-the-air television, particularly in rural areas," says FCC Media Bureau Chief William Lake. "We also recognize the very rapid growth of wireless technology. And we think of this auction as a way of letting the marketplace determine the priorities."

Fite and Cannaliato aren't optimistic. Already, they say, television has been squeezed; stations once stretched all the way to channel 83.

"They're just taking it away," Fite says of the free television Blacktail's translators provide. "Slowly but surely."

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