Spectrum Speculation

It should not have come as a surprise. The FCC last week officially took the wraps off its plan to get spectrum back from broadcasters and turn it over to the wireless broadband industry for all those killer apps.

Broadcasters have been preparing for that eventuality, arguing at the FCC at every opportunity that broadcasting is an efficient user of spectrum, has already given up real estate in the DTV transition, and will make good use of the rest with HD programming and mobile DTV and multicasting. But it still must have hurt a bit to hear the FCC chairman basically say that broadcasters were inefficiently standing in the way of the broadband future. Ouch.

The FCC has been talking for months with broadcasters and others about scenarios in which it could get back some of what it considers beachfront property. Phil Bellaria, lead staffer on the FCC’s spectrum reclamation plan, told B&C last month that the national broadband push anticipated paying broadcasters to voluntarily clear spectrum. “The reality is that we are not trying to take spectrum from any individual broadcaster unless that broadcaster chooses to [give it up],” he said. And we will hold him to it.

As Bellaria described to us, TV stations can choose to keep all of their spectrum, or give up all of it, or something in between. The program is billed as voluntary, but only if the FCC gets enough takers. But what if it gets too many? In this economic climate, what if broadcasters in an entire market decided to sell out, or a network saw a chance to move its model to cable or online with the government’s blessing?

“The FCC is already required by law to make sure there is a fair representation of broadcasters in every state,” says someone familiar with the broadband team’s thinking on the issue. “There are a number of levers the FCC could use to ensure continuation of over-the-air broadcasts in a market, including establishing rules in any spectrum auction that would require a level of over - the- air service remain.”

So, fair warning. The FCC wants the reclamation plan to be a success, just not too much so. Just how the commission would decide who had to stick around, if it came to that, is not clear.

Broadcast executives from around the country will gather this week in Washington for their annual lobbying trip. Look for this issue to be top of mind.

Their challenge will be to make their case without seeming to be Luddites standing in the way of a broadband utopia of online medical checkups and energy audits and job training and all those other national purposes. That goal is achievable if they stick with the hand they have been dealt: that they remain an efficient way to deliver information to a mass, yet local, audience for free, and that they are a player in the broadband future.