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‘Spectrum Squatter’Accusations Fly

Broadcasters could be forgiven for wondering last week whether they were being targeted as spectrum “squatters” while there appeared to be other reasons for concern about broadband capacity that had nothing to do with their over-the-air service.

The FCC has continued to push for congressional authority to pay broadcasters to vacate or reduce their spectrum holdings. But last week the National Association of Broadcasters, whose leaders were gathered for a board meeting in Washington, D.C., sent letters to key legislators saying cable and telcos were themselves acting like squatters by warehousing spectrum. NAB cited reports that Time Warner Cable executives said they had no plans to sell or use the company’s advanced wireless services (AWS) spectrum licenses, and others that wireless companies were sitting on—as much as $15 billion worth of spectrum that has not been deployed. NAB President Gordon Smith asked the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Commerce committees to pass spectrum inventory legislation to find out who “may be sitting on unused airwaves.”

Time Warner countered that it was still considering its options for its AWS spectrum. “Time Warner Cable offers a 4G wireless data service to the majority of our customers,” the company said. “We also continue to evaluate what our customers want from their wireless services and how we can most effectively meet those needs. This includes exploring the best use of our AWS spectrum as we continue our ongoing preparatory work to relocate existing users of that spectrum.”

CTIA President Steve Largent said the wireless industry wants the FCC to free up spectrum so “we can purchase it and give the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars. Then, we’ll use the spectrum to keep innovating and fueling the ‘virtuous cycle’ for our customers. We are not asking for anything for free. Rather, we are willing to send tens of billions of dollars more to the government so that we make sure that we can continue to lead the wireless revolution.”

In a blog posting, Joan Marsh, AT&T VP of federal regulatory affairs, called the NAB’s letter an “astonishing display of denial and false accusation.”

A senior FCC official, speaking not for attribution, noted that the agency imposes build-out requirements on licensees. “Ultimately, though, the argument is a red herring, considering that broadcasters take up 294 MHz of spectrum, when Time Warner Cable has rights to essentially 25 percent of 20 MHz,” the official said.

Separately last week, a new study by the Motion Picture Association of America concluded that almost a quarter of Internet traffic worldwide is actually trafficking in illegal downloads. “With download speeds and server capacity increasing every day, the problem will only get worse if we don’t do something about it,” the MPAA said. “The time for governments and industries to act is now.”

“We would agree with our friends in the programming community, and would suggest that correcting this problem also might alleviate claims of a spectrum shortage that are the focus of the FCC’s attention,” said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.