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Administration Backs Spectrum Search

It is looking more and more likely that the FCC's broadband road map, whenever it is released, will include directions to the nearest available spectrum. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and his broadband team have made it clear that while there is no immediate spectrum crisis, they foresee one by mid-decade, and planning for it needs to start now.

Broadband advisor Blair Levin recently told B&C that the FCC's plans don't threaten the future of broadcasting, but he added that said future did not necessarily justify using all of that spectrum all the time.

Last week, the sense of urgency got the backing of the Obama administration with a one-two punch that could be aimed at incumbent spectrum users, including broadcasters. In filings to the FCC on the upcoming broadband plan, both the Justice Department and the Obama administration—via its chief telecom advisor, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration—said the FCC needed to get its hands on a lot more spectrum.

Both groups framed the push as critical to broadband competition and deployment. While neither singled out broadcasting, the Justice Department in particular was clear that the FCC's first job was to find spectrum being underutilized in terms of its current value versus prospective value to wireless uses.

While the NTIA called finding new spectrum “a” primary tool for promoting broadband competition, the Justice Department referred to it as “the” primary tool. Justice called spectrum scarcity a fundamental obstacle, saying there was “no time to spare” in reallocating it. The agency added that the FCC needs to consider reallocating spectrum “when the total value of that spectrum is significantly greater in a new use than it is in an existing use,” factoring in the cost of transition.

That argument is in the sweet spot of wireless companies, which have argued that broadcast spectrum is underused; they have also computed the differential between the value of spectrum for broadcasting and for wireless broadband at tens of billions of dollars.

Broadcasters have countered that their value is also in the public services they provide—such as news, weather, civic dialogue and emergency information—to an over-the-air population that the government just spent billions to migrate to digital service. National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said the government has already reclaimed broadcast spectrum, and that broadcasting and broadband is not an either/or proposition.

“As part of our recent transition to digital television, broadcasters just returned to the government more than one-quarter of the airwaves we use to provide free and local TV service to millions of Americans,” he said. “We look forward to a continuing dialogue with policymakers on how broadband and broadcasting can co-exist without jeopardizing digital TV's full potential for consumers.”

Broadcasters have been lobbying against a spectrum grab in part by pointing to the promise of mobile DTV. They continued that push last week with e-mails promoting a mobile DTV demonstration at the Consumer Electronics Show, as well as an upcoming real-world market test in—appropriately enough—Washington, D.C.

Broadcasters have been defending their turf in filings at the FCC, citing additional ways they could use spectrum if given the chance. The NAB will get a better sense of how much chance they will get in mid-March if the FCC holds to its just-extended timetable for the broadband plan's delivery to Congress.

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