Editorial: Testing One, Two

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is looking for evidence that channel sharing will not undercut the future of the broadcasters that agree to give up some of their spectrum. Perhaps it will be an option for some stations. But it won’t come without a price.

Even if both stations can deliver HD simultaneously, there won’t be enough spectrum to also deliver multicast channels or other services not yet imagined. It freezes broadcasters in time, said one broadcaster who was not ready to become an inclusion in the amber of memory.

So, channel sharing will certainly be an opportunity, but it will also be a trade-off. Since CTIA: The Wireless Association— which has pushed the FCC to take back spectrum from broadcasters— proposed the coming test of this sharing arrangement using two Los Angeles stations, we would advise the National Association of Broadcasters, which has been advising broadcasters of the value of keeping spectrum, to conduct its own test. The FCC can only benefit from more input, and a single source is not sufficient evidence on which to base conclusions—and stake broadcasting’s future.

Curiously, the FCC apparently did not reach out to the NAB about the channel sharing test, according to an association source speaking not for attribution: “We were never asked to participate, but would have been more than happy to.”

Wheeler promoted the test in a blog posting that brimmed with enthusiasm for channel sharing, tied to his visit last week to noncommercial KLCS, which is teaming with commercial, Hispanic-targeted KLJA in the proceeding. “I’ve seen the future, and it’s using 50% less bandwidth to produce a picture with increased quality of up to 300%,” the chairman enthused, using that to prime his nowfamiliar pitch about the upcoming incentive auctions being a “once-in-alifetime opportunity for those broadcasters who want to capture the value of their spectrum.”

But the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), which represents KLCS and other noncommercial stations, was quick to point out that the test was not meant to be the be-all and end-all proof of a thesis.

“This pilot is not intended to prove that all broadcasters can get by with half the spectrum they’re currently using,” said Patrick Butler, president and CEO of APTS. “Instead, it’s designed to show that all kinds of good things can happen—for broadcasters and for the public—with advances in compression technology and innovative business arrangements that permit the sharing of significant costs between stations.”

Butler added that this could include stations channel sharing, or keeping all of their spectrum to expand their vital service. He also said, rather pointedly it seemed to us, that the vast majority of his stations would be opting not to give up spectrum.

So, it sounds like APTS will have a vested interest in making sure the L.A. test is just that, and not a vehicle for any particular change.

But, just as one-source stories don’t get far in the B&C newsroom, a test with only one source of input and info will fall short no matter how wellintentioned it may be.

And if the NAB does propose to conduct its own test of what is lost and what is gained in living every digital day as a spectrum sharer, we hope the FCC will be just as fast at approving its test as CTIA’s—and just as enthusiastic.