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NAB 2010: Spectrum Debate Heats Up MSTV Meeting

NAB Show 2010: Complete Coverage From B&C
As the debate over the country's spectrum policy heats up in Washington, broadcasters traded views with representatives from the FCC and the wireless industry at the NAB convention on Monday (Apr. 12).

Spectrum watchdog Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and NAB organized a joint panel discussion, "Television Broadcast Spectrum: Use It or Lose It," which was held in conjunction with MSTV's annual meeting. The event drew several hundred broadcasters to hear key players in the spectrum debate discuss the potential ramifications of the FCC's proposed broadband plan, including Paul Karpowicz, president of Meredith Broadcast Group; Phil Bellaria, director of scenario planning for the FCC's National Broadband Task Force; Lawrence Krevor, VP of spectrum and government affairs for Sprint Nextel; and Rick Ducey, chief strategy officer for consulting firm BIAfn Financial Network. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and NAB President Gordon Smith were both in attendance.

The event was kicked off with a keynote address from Robert W. Hubbard, president & CEO of Hubbard Television Group and MSTV chairman, who urged broadcasters to fight for their spectrum and sharply criticized recent remarks from former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt suggesting that free over-the-air television was no longer a necessary service.
"I hope the more responsible heads in government reject this false premise, because it is a false premise," said Hubbard.

After Hubbard received thunderous applause, the panel discussion ensued with MSTV President David Donovan and Wiley Rein Managing Partner Dick Wiley moderating. Much of the questioning was aimed at the technical feasibility of the plan and whether participation is in fact voluntary for stations. Most broadcasters contend that it isn't.

Facing a tough crowd, Bellaria opened by saying he was glad to be part of the conversation at NAB and joked that he thought it was important for broadcasters to "hear it from the horse's mouth, the donkey's mouth, maybe the ass's mouth."

He emphasized that the FCC wasn't suggesting any "extreme" measures and that the proposed plan would only require a "small number" of broadcasters to participate in order to free up the 120 MHz of spectrum nationwide that the FCC is seeking.

But Donovan immediately questioned whether participation was really voluntary, noting that "it doesn't seem to be a plan that most broadcasters are interested in participating in." Donovan and Karpowicz also pointed out the challenges of freeing up spectrum in New York and other frequency-congested markets along the Eastern seaboard, and questioned how the FCC could prevent interference if it packed stations more tightly together in the broadcast band.
Karpowicz said that while it might be possible to free up 120 MHz spectrum in rural markets, there was "no way" the plan was technically feasible along the East Coast, around the Midwestern cities of Chicago and Milwaukee, and in parts of California.

"The concept of voluntary seems like a little bit of smoke and mirrors," said Karpowicz.

He also noted that since broadcasters didn't initially pay for the spectrum, Congress might not be so willing to let stations get compensated for giving back part of their channels.

"That's a very big jump for Congress to take, to let us reap the benefits of spectrum auctions," said Karpowicz.

Karpowicz also voiced concern about the FCC's suggestion of letting stations share spectrum through channel stacking. He said there would be no way to support the delivery of multiple HD broadcasts, such as a Saturday afternoon when three broadcast networks are simultaneously carrying college football games, in such a constricted environment.
"If we're prepared to tell all the people who bought HDTV sets that they're not going to get HDTV, then sure, it works," he quipped.

For his part, Ducey said that consumers want their media delivered through a multi-platform, integrated experience that combines broadcast delivery with mobile TV and Internet video. He said the goal for broadcasters should be to "start with ubiquity, and improve upon that" and said a reduction in coverage would be damaging to local stations.

Sprint Nextel's Krevor said that it was difficult as a carrier to map its spectrum needs across regions and particular time periods, because "demand is constantly shifting." He encouraged the FCC to look at spectrum management as "an ongoing, iterative" process that would seek available spectrum both in the broadcast band and in other places, such as the FCC's proposed "D-Block" auction.

Krevor added that while the FCC would like to see broadcasters free up the same channels across the country to ensure coverage as a consumer moves from market to market, new receiver technology might be smart enough to pick up the same service from different channels in different markets. He also said that mobile DTV technology has good potential as part of the overall broadband plan.

"It's exciting," he said. "It certainly addresses exactly what we're talking about here, that video is the biggest spectrum hog."

The biggest laugh of an oft-heated discussion came from an exchange between Bellaria and Karpowicz. Repeating his assertion that he was "very confident" that voluntary participation from stations would work, Bellaria asked the audience if they were married, and many hands shot up.

"Okay," he said. "Now think back to your wedding day. On your wedding day, were you already thinking about who to marry next? We are on our wedding day right now, and we are very confident that the marriage is going to work."
To that, Karpowicz quipped: "The problem is, 50% of marriages don't work."