Broadcasters Ponder FCC Spectrum Reclamation

A source confirms that broadcasters at last week's NAB board meeting in Dallas discussed the possibility of turning much of their digital spectrum back in to the government in exchange for a cut of the proceeds when that spectrum was reauctioned for wireless broadband. "There was not much support for the idea," said the source.

That meeting came on the heels of another one, reported by TVNewscheck's Kim McAvoy, between FCC broadband advisor Blair Levin and members of the board of broadcasters' spectrum watchdog group, the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV).

MSTV Board Chairman and Hubbard TV President Robert Hubbard told B&C that said Levin was invited to the Oct. 8 meeting to talk about the issue of freeing up spectrum for broadband. That issue has been much on the FCC's mind of late as it prepares a national broadband plan to Congress in which wireless broadband is expected to play a significant role. "MSTV invited Blair Levin to come in and tell what he has been tasked with and to understand what he is trying to accomplish and if and where we can be helpful."

He said the conversation "ran the gamut from broadcasters contributing nothing, and when I say contribute I don't mean just give it away, to very extreme things, and everything in between. My take was that it was a conversation about 'what ifs' and 'what are possibles,' but at this point it's all in-process analysis." He says there was no particular proposal, but rather a conversation about a lot of possibilities. He would not identify which, but he did say some of the possibilities are "quite scary," though he added: "Where we end up in the political process nobody can predict today."

"The FCC is looking for a way to find spectrum and, as far as I know, they are looking at every option and all of the spectrum holders," Hubbard said. "Obviously, television holds a big share of spectrum and ours is some they are looking at."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told B&C in an interview last week that the FCC had reached out to broadcasters.

"We are grateful to the numerous broadcasters who have responded to inquiries we've made about alternative scenarios for freeing up greater spectrum use," he told the magazine last week. "I encourage broadcasters to be a part of this process."

In a speech to the wireless industry two weeks ago, Genachowski said that mobile was essential to the future of broadband, and that getting more spectrum was essential to mobile. "As this audience knows, it takes years to reallocate spectrum and put it to use. And there are no easy pickings on the spectrum chart," he said. "But we have no choice. We must identify spectrum that can best be reinvested in mobile broadband. That is something that we have to work on together, across industries, and in partnership with all stakeholders."

David Donovan, who heads MSTV, had no comment on the meeting. Levin was not available for comment at press time. But Donovan had plenty to say about what he saw as a potential wireless spectrum grab.

"Wireless companies are asking the government to participate in the biggest consumer bait and switch in American history," he told B&C. "For the last few years, the government told consumers that digital television would bring them free over- the-air HDTV and more channels. Now after purchasing billions of dollars in new digital equipment and antennas, wireless advocates are asking the government to renege on its promise. High-definition programming and more digital channels would become the sole and exclusive province of pay services. The American public simply will not stand for this."

While almost 9 out of 10 viewers watch their local TV stations over a cable system rather than over the air, the digital switch has openened up mutlicast channel opportunities, including potential pay services and new revenue streams, as well as the ability to do mobile TV. The industry just last week agreed on a standard for mobile digital broadcasting.

"Wireless advocates use the broadcast business model as it existed prior to the digital transition," says Donovan. "They fail to take into account the new digital business model based on HDTV, multicasting and mobile TV. Because our system is “backward” compatible, we can provide mobile service and at the same time provide HDTV programs as well.
Because our infrastructure is built, we can bring these services to consumers faster and at a lower cost."

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.