Editorial: Let All Antennas Bloom

Broadcasters were not forced to give up spectrum in the FCC incentive auction. They did not have to take the billions of dollars the government essentially begged them to take to give up a few channels for wireless broadband, though it had the power simply to take back spectrum and pay nothing for it had the commission concluded — as it could have, and might have — that it was in the public’s better interest.

So, given that the government pressed TV stations to move into smaller spectrum space at about the same time as the industry was putting the finishing touches on a next-gen TV standard, it seems only fair to give them room to stretch their digital wings.

Microsoft has been pushing the FCC to essentially take away more TV channels for unlicensed wireless. As National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith pointed out this week elsewhere in these pages — a message NAB has been stressing to whomever will listen at the FCC — Microsoft had plenty of money to bid on spectrum in the auction, but didn’t.

Elsewhere, the FCC is busy freeing up all manner of spectrum for unlicensed uses, particularly in the upper bands that will work nicely for the 5G next generation of wireless service.

Microsoft has been billing its push as a way to close the rural digital divide, which is wise branding, given President Donald Trump’s pledges of getting broadband to farmers, and FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s priority on getting it to rural areas like his native Kansas. But rural areas aren’t the issue; in those expanses, there is room to deliver wireless without butting up against current channels; or taking them from potential ATSC 3.0 simulcasts or LPTVs and translators that could go dark without them; or perhaps even new TV stations being built in an increasingly cord-cutting world.

As Smith pointed out, there is extra space in rural areas; it is the urban ones where broadcasters don’t need squeezing. “It may be that the rural focus is a straw man to knock down to get to the urban,” he said.

Certainly that is the view of former top Fox and Disney executive Preston Padden, who tweeted last week: “Microsoft says they need free 600 MHz Spectrum in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago so they can bring internet service to residents in remote rural areas. Huh? I mean, how stupid do they think the regulators are.”

We trust the FCC can separate the economic politics from the sound policy, which is to give broadcasters room to grow into their new digs.