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Editorial: The New Math

Two weeks ago, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration announced, to a fanfare of trumpets and loud huzzahs (OK, actually with a press release and a teleconference) that it had identified another 95 MHz of government spectrum that could be freed up for wireless broadband.

At first—even second—glance, that appeared to be great news for broadcasters. The more government spectrum given up, the less pressure on broadcasters to turn over their real estate for the purported higher, better use of wireless broadband. But there was one sour note the agency did nothing to advertise in this announcement.

President Obama charged the NTIA and the FCC with hunting up more spectrum for wireless broadband. The more spectrum that can be unleashed, the frillier the feathers in either group’s cap when it comes to pleasing the Commander in Chief.

When added to the NTIA’s initial report of 115 MHz that could be freed up, this 95 gives NTIA 40% of the president’s goal of finding 500 MHz within 10 years, as NTIA pointed out in its announcement. But when FCC chairman Julius Genachowski released a statement on the announcement, no mention was made of that 95 MHz addition. Instead, the focus was on 25 MHz that could be easily paired with FCC spectrum inventory in an adjacent band to create 50 MHz.

Turns out it was no surprise the commission was not adding its trumpet to the fanfare. The small print in the NTIA report said that it would take 10 years and some $18 billion to clear the government agencies from the band, money the NTIA itself conceded it might not entirely recoup from the spectrum auction. But arguably even more irksome for the commission is that one of NTIA’s admitted “challenges and conditions” to freeing up that spectrum will include moving the Department of Defense to spectrum currently being used by broadcasters for electronic newsgathering. The net-net—as the saying goes—is that the FCC would then have to find new spectrum homes for all those studio-to-transmitter links and all those news vans that have become the boilerplate for any big event or breaking news.

So, the gift of finding 95 MHz really means moving to a new game of musical deck chairs on the S.S. Mobile Broadband, with broadcast newsgatherers suddenly the odd folks out. It would be the second such forced march for the ENG folks, after they were moved off the 2GHz band during the DTV transition to make room for the all-too-familiar wireless service.

An NTIA representative said no decision has been made about where to move whom. But according to the report: “[The Department of Defense] states it requires access to the 2025-2110 MHz band on a primary basis to ensure comparable capability for many of their systems. This will require reallocation of the band to allow various federal operations and the development of solutions for the accommodation of incumbent broadcast auxiliary service [BAS] and other systems in the band.”

BAS is where ENG lives. And this is the Department of Defense talking.

Broadcasters probably should not be surprised that even when their spectrum is not supposed to be in play, it appears to be anyway. The FCC’s lip service to broadcasting notwithstanding, the message out of Washington has been pretty clear. Broadcasters will have to fight for every inch of spectrum—which, we remind the FCC, means the millions of viewers who still rely on them.