Wireless Industry Cheers FCC’s Call for Probe of TV Spectrum Use

Published December 28, 2009

The Federal Communications Commission has called for more information about how television broadcasters use their spectrum licenses, a sign the FCC is looking to free up more spectrum for wireless broadband.

The FCC’s inquiry acknowledges “the value that the United States puts on free, over-the-air television.” But the commission also wants to explore “market-based mechanisms for television broadcasters to contribute to the broadband effort” through a possible reallocation “of any spectrum in excess of that which [broadcasters] need to meet their public interest obligations and remain financially viable.”

Blair Levin, the person in charge of coordinating development of the FCC’s national broadband plan, acknowledged it could be difficult to get the broadcasters to consent to give up spectrum.

Broadcasters Balk
The physical limits of the spectrum have not been controversial for most of the history of its allocation to broadcasters by the FCC, but the issue has become more complicated with the fast advancement of wireless technology in recent years.

Wireless technology has grown exponentially in recent years, but the spectrum available to implement that technology is finite. Broadcast trade associations are balking at calls by the wireless industry to reallocate approximately 800MHz of spectrum below the 3GHz mark, which is used for radio and TV.

The wireless industry, however, says the enormous growth in smart phone use makes this transition a necessity. Besides, says the Consumer Electronics Association, most Americans watch their television via cable or satellite, suggesting broadcasters have more spectrum than they need.

Reallocation Advocated
Rick Rotondo, chief marketing officer for Spectrum Bridge Inc., a Lake Mary, Florida-based company specializing in wireless broadband, says the FCC should reallocate the limited spectrum to reflect modern technological advances.

“You need to look at how spectrum is being used today,” Rotondo said. “A lot of spectrum is dedicated to public safety; that’s probably a good use. Some is dedicated to paging. That is still used, but not as much as it used to be. Some of that [spectrum] might be able to be used elsewhere.”

Similarly, some of the spectrum dedicated to two-way radio could probably be reallocated because use of that communication channel has dropped in favor of cell phones and smart phones, Rotondo said.

Time for an Inventory
Rotondo said the FCC has been very aggressive in addressing spectrum shortage through a variety of initiatives—including opening up a secondary market and freeing up TV whites spaces—but adds a new inventory is in order. And if some spectrum must be reallocated for wireless broadband, that doesn’t mean broadcasters would simply be forced to give it away.

“If the over-the-air broadcasting were replaced with other technologies, it would probably cost $19 billion,” Rotondo said. “But that same spectrum could be auctioned off for at least $60 billion, providing a $40-plus billion net benefit.”

Then, Rotondo recommends, the spectrum could be dynamically allocated on a short-term basis so it gets put to the best use, which changes over time.

Call for Smart Action
The FCC hasn’t been focused on providing the best use of the spectrum, but instead on “getting headlines and shocking people,” said John Hane, a communications attorney in the Washington, DC office of the Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm.

“They start with a conclusion and then they try to justify it,”  Hane said.

On the broadcast side the spectrum isn’t used efficiently, especially as consumer tastes change and over-the-air television is watched by fewer and fewer people, Hane said. The unregulated, broadband, video providers tend to respond better to market demands, he added.

“The service reflects the regulatory structure. It’s mind-numbingly overregulated,” Hane said. “The FCC should have only a light touch on regulation.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.