Vermont PBS Sells Broadcast License

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Colchester, Vt. — Vermont PBS has sold one of its four broadcast licenses to the Federal Communications Commission for $56 million through the federal regulators’ spectrum auction, the broadcaster announced on Friday.

The sale will not reduce the over-the-air reach of Vermont PBS, CEO Holly Groschner said during a news conference at its Colchester studio. The broadcaster will re-engineer its network to replicate coverage transmitted from WVTA on Mount Ascutney.

A New Hampshire television station, WBIN-TV, also was sold at auction to the FCC for an estimated $100 million and will go off the air in the coming months.

Bill Binnie of WBIN-TV said on Friday that proceeds from the sale will be used by the company to acquire other media assets in digital, outdoor and radio areas. He said many employees will be transferred to a new division. There will be continued investment in its 19 radio stations and news web business, NH1.com.

Robb Atkinson, general manager of the newly expanded NH1 News digital business, said the company is investing in delivering news content on mobile phones, tablets and home computers. He said the days of running home to watch news on TV “are quickly disappearing.”

Engineers at the Vermont station have determined they can achieve the same coverage using signal repeaters and additional fiber interconnects, Groschner said. Vermont PBS will set up a system for people to report online if there’s any issues with their reception, she said.

“This is transformation money, but it’s one-time money,” Groschner said, adding that it won’t diminish the broadcaster’s need for public support from government and donations.

Vermont PBS has a $6 million annual budget. It received $271,000 from the state last year, and Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget would level-fund that amount. It receives roughly $960,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Rebecca Kelly, a spokeswoman for Scott, said the administration was not aware of the license sale when it wrote its budget.

Asked if the announcement might change how much money the state gives the broadcaster, Kelly said it’s “certainly something we would look into.” She said she expects legislative budget writers may want to re-evaluate as well.

Lawmakers have considered making cuts to Vermont PBS in the past.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and stations that rely on its support face an uncertain future as President Donald Trump is reported to be looking at privatizing the public entity.

If Vermont PBS were to use the $56 million to pay its bills and cover its annual budget, the money would be gone in less than a decade. Instead, the broadcaster plans to use that money to steward its operation through the next half century.

The Vermont PBS board has begun a strategic planning process to determine how the $56 million can be used to “take us into the 21st century, both with our television broadcast and the new digital environment to communicate with all Vermonters,” Groschner said.

She said it was too early to say how they’ll use the money to achieve that goal, because she doesn’t want to pre-empt the stakeholder engagement and strategic planning the board has begun.

The FCC spectrum auction is designed to increase capacity for mobile broadband in order to meet America’s voracious demand for wireless internet access.

As the FCC explains on its website, “Today, there are more connected devices than there are people living in the U.S., and about 70 percent of Americans use data-hungry smartphones.”

The bandwidth freed up through the voluntary sale of licenses also is being sold at auction.

There are 62 companies that qualified to bid for the new licenses, including the big three wireless broadband companies AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, said Charles Meisch with the FCC Incentive Auction Task Force.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.