Broadcasters, DoD Strike Deal on Sharing BAS Band

Broadcasters and the Defense Department have come to an agreement on sharing spectrum in the Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) band (2025-2110 MHz), the spectrum broadcast journalists use to transmit breaking news stories back to the station.

That is according to NAB Executive VP of Strategic Planning Rick Kaplan, who spoke with reporters Monday about the agreement. Broadcasters will have "primacy" in the band, said Kaplan, meaning that DoD cannot interfere with their operations.

The BAS spectrum is also used for some cable relay service, but broadcasters had the major dog in the fight.

Broadcasters and DoD will be co-primary users, but he said in practice broadcasters will be primary. DoD will also be geographically limited, generally to military bases. He also said it would be only DOJ that would be sharing, not other agencies. That was an important win for broadcasters, who said it would not work had the sharing been expanded.

When DoD first proposed the sharing back in July, NAB had fought the idea, based on reports that suggested it was infeasible, said Kaplan, but it had since dug into the issue, along with DoD, NTIA and the Society of Broadcast Engineers, to come up with a solution.  "We were able to arrive at a framework where it looks like DoD will be able to share with us. There are still details to work out," he said, though he expected them to be worked out over the next several months.

Kaplan said both broadcasters and DoD had put their cards on the table, with broadcasters initially asking whether only part of the band would have to share and DoD saying no, it needed to be all of it. There still needs to be a memorandum of understanding (MOU) drawn up, but Kaplan said the key sharing framework is now in place.

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration Monday sent a letter in support of the agreement, citing the cost savings and not having to displace broadcasters. NTIA was charged with finding government spectrum to free up through reclamation or sharing.

NTIA billed it as a DoD proposal, but NAB suggested it was a team effort and pointed to its role, as well as that of the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE), in coming to an agreement. Kaplan said broadcasters were "happy to help the cause." SBE has experience in coordinating with DoD—broadcasters already share some of the BAS band with the department already, said Kaplan.

In order to free up some spectrum ideal for pairing with existing spectrum and auctioning for wireless broadband, DoD has said it needed to move to the 2025-2110 band, where electronic newsgathering equipment -- all those trucks and dishes sending live news back to stations and networks -- currently operate, as well as for studio/transmitter links.

Broadcasters have been in ongoing talks with DoD about that potential sharing for months.

NAB also reiterated to the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month that it needs all the ENG spectrum it currently has. Wireless companies had recommended that the FCC take back the top two channels of Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) spectrum as part of an effort to clear up 15 MHz of spectrum, per congressional directive, by pairing it with other spectrum.

Kaplan said FCC staffers had signaled that with the sharing agreement, broadcasters would not have to take that two-channel haircut off a BAS allocation that has already been reduced from 120 MHz to 85 in the last digital transition.

"What [the agreement] gives for us is a greater sense of long-term certainty. We're glad the Administration batted back ideas to take spectrum away from us."

He said he was confident that any attempt by the wireless industry to take back those channels had now been thwarted, and rightly so. He said it was still up to the FCC about reducing the size of the band, "we have been assured [from the staff] that is not going to happen."

CTIA: The Wireless Association, which had recommended the two-channel take-back, backed off a bit from that position earlier this month, pointing to the DoD discussions: "The Commission should consider other options if it determines that [taking the 15 MHz from BAS] is not feasible within the statutory time period."

Kaplan said he anticipated that CTIA would basically drop that push now that the DoD sharing deal had been done, paving the way for DoD's move that helps free up 50 MHz spectrum for sale to wireless companies.

A number of legislators were pushing for an agreement, including Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.). "There was a lot of leadership shown by members of Congress, who were all over this," she said, including House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and member Doris Matsui (D-Calif.).

"NTIA's announcement today in support of the Department of Defense's roadmap to repurpose the 1755-1780 MHz band for commercial use marks an important step in meeting the President's goal of making 500 MHz of new spectrum available for mobile broadband," Matsui said in a statement. "The DoD roadmap, which contains a sharing agreement between the Defense Department and the National Association of Broadcasters, supports lifting a major hurdle to getting the 1755-1780MHz band to auction next year. I applaud the Department of Defense, NTIA, and the FCC, as well as the wireless industry and broadcasters for working closely together and in good faith over the last several months."

"The sharing agreement between DoD and the NAB will responsibly relocate DoD to a comparable band that does not in any way jeopardize our nation's military capabilities. That was the goal from the start and I'm pleased that the process is meeting that objective."

"Today's effort marks a critical step toward finally auctioning the 1755 MHz band," said Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee. "I have been working for over a year to get the key agencies to take action on reallocating this spectrum, and I am happy that the administration has listened to the bipartisan calls from Congress to grow our economy by freeing up these valuable airwaves while addressing our military's needs. It has been a long and bumpy road, but I commend the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, the Federal Communications Commission, and the broadcasting and wireless industries for working cooperatively to make today's plan a reality. I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that the relocation and auction processes proceed as planned and on schedule."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.