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Editorial: The Lion’s Share

The FCC this week sent its clearest signal yet that it expects broadband to become the currency of our media future. At its public meeting next week, the commission will open up the TV spectrum to unlicensed fixed and mobile devices. The idea is to turn the TV band into one big Wi-Fi hotspot.

The excitement at the commission over that prospect is palpable, and understandable. We just want to make sure the FCC has looked sufficiently at the impact on broadcasters before it leaps.

In a speech to eBay online sellers, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski once again talked about freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband and other uses. And he wasn’t even talking about the FCC’s goal of reclaiming more than 100 MHz of spectrum from broadcasters over the next few years, with the promise of billions to broadcasters who choose to bail on the biz or reduce their options.

He was talking about the final rules the FCC will be issuing on the white spaces proceeding, which will allow those unlicensed devices to share DTV spectrum but without the interference backstops the industry wanted.

The FCC is expected to reverse its initial decision to require the devices, like laptops and cognitive radios, to have remote sensing technology to better identify which channels are being used by TV stations and licensed microphone users such as electronic newsgatherers and sports and bigevent producers. Instead, the system will depend entirely on a database, accessible by the devices, that identifies those registered for protection.

The FCC is also reducing the buffer between, say, the Super Bowl and the operation of unlicensed devices by more than half.

We’re not saying the FCC is dismissive of broadcasters’ concerns. But clearly, the emphatic nod is toward the wide eyes of computer companies that sought the reduced protections, rather than the concerned glances of broadcasters who don’t need yet another enormous technological challenge to keep an audience already being wooed by numerous new suitors.

Broadcasters could be forgiven for feeling under siege after connecting a bunch of dots—the spectrum reclamation proposal, the white spaces push, the FCC’s proposal to turn TV sets into broadband monitors via a universal set-top—and behind it all the echoes of former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt’s boast that replacing broadcast with broadband was the FCC’s goal all along.

Broadcasters aren’t unwilling to share—but that seems decidedly beside the point. They should get the protections they need for a service that is still the first choice of the majority of the nation’s news consumers.