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DTV Pioneer Pitches FCC On Alternative Broadband Plan

Armed with a National Broadband Plan of its own in which broadcasters figure prominently, Capitol Broadcasting pitched FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski last week on a proposal it argues would solve the spectrum crunch while allowing broadcasters to keep their allocations and provide even more dough to the government's coffers than a one-time spectrum auction.

That is a tall order, but James Goodmon, president & CEO of Capital Broadcasting Co., a pioneer in digital and high-definition TV, says it is doable. What was the chairman's response? "He listened politely," said Goodmon, who argues that the FCC's plan to reclaim, re-auction and repack broadcasters' spectrum won't work.
A Genachowski spokesperson reached for comment Sunday had no comment.

According to Goodmon, the company's counter to the reclamation/auction proposal in the broadband plan is for broadcasters to provide an ancillary service in which they would handle distribution of video when wireless broadband providers can't handle the traffic volume themselves. 

Per current rules regarding ancillary use of public spectrum, the FCC would get to take a 5% cut of the revenues broadcasters would generate by charging the Verizon's and AT&T's of the world for the service, which Goodmon argues could wind up exceeding the billions the treasury is predicted to get in a one-time auction of that spectrum and would be "in perpetuity."

The plan was put together by Capitol's New Media Group team, Jimmy Goodmon and Sam Matheny.
Following the pitch to the chairman, Goodmon took aim at the FCC's broadband plan publicly at a Media Access Project conference on Friday, March 11. The conference focuses on spectrum issues including incentive auctions and the FCC's proposal to "repack" stations into lower, VHF bands to make room for wireless broadband.

Goodmon said the FCC's National Broadband Plan had left out the innovators in his industry. "I went through the Broadband Plan and I didn't see any mention of broadcasters," he said. "I don't know why, but when the FCC was talking about innovation, they left out broadcasters. There is no greater innovating group than broadcasters."

Goodmon told the group that the FCC's spectrum reclamation plan won't work and that, rather than solving a crisis, it will create one. Reached after the speech, Goodmon explained to B&C why he said that. "Any credible wireless broadband plan should contain as part of it a broadcast overlay," he said.

And what is the broadcast overlay plan? 

"The idea," he says, "is that the wireless broadband provider has a device with a broadcast chip in it and when there is a request for a large amount of video at one time, they hand that off to the broadcaster," he says, "who downloads it all to the mobile device. And as there is more demand for a particular video, the wireless people send it to broadcast and then they broadcast to the wireless device, which they are doing in several parts of the world. What I am saying is the way the [cell phone companies] are using spectrum, they'll never have enough. But if you use the broadcast overlay, we can make this work."

And broadcasters will be able to do that and still deliver all those services like mobile DTV and multicasting, Goodmon says. 

Goodmon also says that broadcasters will be able to free up spectrum over time without giving it up by migrating over the next decade or so to OFDM, a digital multiplexing technology that will allow stations to be "repacked" close together. 

"I'm all for new and better ideas," says Blair Levin, the chief architect of the FCC's National Broadband Plan and now a fellow at the Aspen Institute. "But it is an unfair criticism to say there is no broadcasting in the plan when [Goodmon] is not talking about the use of broadcasting but broadcasting spectrum to solve a broadband problem, which is what we talked about in the plan." Goodmon also pitched the idea to Levin, who was in North Carolina last week, where Capitol is based. 

"Even if Jim Goodmon's idea works in the marketplace," Levin says, "there still may be a significant number of broadcasters in big urban areas who still think it is better to utilize incentive auctions." So, Levin does not think this is a reason to shift gears from the reclamation/auction plan. "It is definitely not a reason to stop...We have all wondered what the broadcasters would do with the extra capacity potentially delivered. We haven't see it yet, but maybe Jim's idea is the best one."

Broadcasters are increasingly concerned that the FCC's voluntary plan to take back up to 210 MHz of their spectrum will instead be a forced march to more cramped spectrum quarters in less desirable band real estate. 

"Jim Goodmon's ideas are creative and positive, and it is something we would hope those who seem inclined to dismiss broadcasters' future ought to strongly consider," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has said he recognizes the value of free, over-the-air TV, but has also heavily promoted wireless broadband while pointing out the declines in viewers who rely solely on over-the-air. "[W]hile about 300 MHz of prime spectrum is set aside for TV broadcasting across the country," he told a Consumer Electronics Association convention audience in January, "the percentage of viewers who watch broadcasting over the air -- that is, who use that spectrum to watch TV instead of watching broadcast programming through cable or satellite -- has declined from 100% to under 10%."

Broadcasters counter that there is a cord-cutting trend that could see that percentage going in the other direction.