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FCC's Rosenworcel calls for immediate investigation into Sinclair

While the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is still determining how and when it might address character concerns raised against Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel recently said the agency should begin investigating the issues immediately.

"This agency has unanimously found in the context of a prior transaction that this licensee engaged in misrepresentation and lack of candor before this agency," said Rosenworcel after the commission's monthly open meeting on March 15. "As a result, I think we should start an investigation now."

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FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel
Source: FCC

Rosenworcel's remarks center on allegations that Sinclair, as part of its failed acquisition of Tribune Media Co., made several misrepresentations around its proposed broadcast TV station divestitures. Based on these allegations, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in 2018 recommended a hearing before an administrative law judge to address the character issues. The FCC unanimously supported the hearing designation order, and the Sinclair-Tribune deal fell apart.

On March 5, Jane Halprin, the commission's lone administrative law judge, issued an order that granted Sinclair's request to dismiss its applications and terminate a hearing on the abandoned deal proposal. However, she suggested Sinclair could face future scrutiny from the agency over the divestiture issues, such as when the company is seeking commission approval on an application for a license assignment, transfer or renewal.

Public records show Sinclair's next license renewals occur in 2020.

Rosenworcel said that based on the allegations, she does not believe the FCC should wait until 2020 to investigate character concerns around Sinclair.

When Pai was asked about next steps for possible future scrutiny of Sinclair, the Republican chairman deferred questions to the agency's media bureau. A representative from the FCC's media bureau said agency staff are reviewing the judge's order.

The American Cable Association, which represents small to midsize cable operators and opposed the Sinclair-Tribune merger, said in a March 5 statement that all parties would benefit if the FCC investigated Sinclair's behavior "sooner rather than later."

Turning to spectrum and the race to next-generation 5G wireless service, it appears that the FCC will only be holding auctions for high-band spectrum in 2019. The agency is auctioning millimeter-wave spectrum in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz bands for 5G wireless use in 2019 and is planning to hold a single auction for the 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz bands later this year.

However, Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who has long advocated for pushing more mid-band spectrum into the marketplace to help with 5G deployment in the U.S., indicated March 15 that he does not expect the commission to have a mid-band auction in 2019.

Globally, mid-band spectrum is seen as an enticing piece of real estate for 5G. While high-band is good for high data throughput, it cannot travel far distances or penetrate certain surfaces. While low band can travel long distances and penetrate walls, it has become crowded due to 4G wireless services.

In the U.S., though, clearing mid-band spectrum for commercial wireless use is complicated. The 3.5 GHz band had previously been reserved for fixed satellite services and federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2015, the FCC adopted an order that created the Citizens Broadband Radio Service to coordinate spectrum sharing between federal and non-federal users. The agency also established three different tiers of users: incumbents, priority access licenses and general authorized access users.

In an effort to incentivize investment and spur 5G deployment in the band, the FCC voted in October 2018 to expand the PALs to encompass entire counties, extended the licensing terms to 10 years and added the option of making them renewable. This is more in line with traditional wireless licenses.

But O'Rielly acknowledged on March 15 that the commission may not be moving as quickly as he would like to offer the licenses up to the market.

"We're still in the preparatory stages for the auction for the CBRS band, the PAL licenses — so I don't know when that timing will be," he said. "I tend to believe it's going to go into 2020 in terms of the auction."

The agency has also been actively seeking ways to free up spectrum and expand flexible use in what is known as the C-band, or 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz band, for 5G, but O'Rielly acknowledged that there remains "a lot of difficult issues to decide" for that band as well.