While it’s summer in Washington and things should slow down, the discussion of the need for wireless spectrum for broadband, and the related question of whether to reclaim television spectrum for that use, continues unabated. This week, the FCC released a new report finding that between 14 and 24 million Americans have no access to broadband, and finding that a disproportionate number of those people are in rural areas. While this report to Congress is meant as a factual report on the status of broadband deployment, and not a document that details solutions to the lack of access, both the statement about the report from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the FCC Press Release summarizing the report, suggest that one way to address this shortcoming is to encourage the deployment of wireless broadband.
While the FCC did not, in these documents specifically mention the TV spectrum as a source for that wireless capacity, as we have written before, the FCC’s Broadband Plan looks to the television spectrum for the majority of the spectrum that they hope to reclaim for broadband use. Joining the FCC’s call for more spectrum was an even higher power. The White House recently issued a Presidential Memorandum supporting the idea that the FCC free up 500 mhz of spectrum for wireless broadband purposes. While the Memorandum tasked government agencies with finding ways to free spectrum that they are using to meet this perceived need, it also made clear that the government would look to meet part of the need by reclaiming spectrum from non-governmental users. And they are not the only ones getting into the Act.
In an action from yet another branch of government, Congress also has a new Bill to consider these issues. Senators Kerry and Snowe introduced a bill to comprehensively address spectrum reallocation issues – The Spectrum Measurement and Policy Reform Act. The Bill also gives authority to the FCC to share auction proceeds with services that give up some of their spectrum to be reused for broadband purposes. This would presumably allow for the "voluntary" relinquishment of spectrum by some television broadcasters that the FCC has suggested should happen. The bill, however, also has a stick to go with the carrot of potential revenue sharing. The legislation gives the FCC the authority to impose a spectrum fee based on the "fair commercial value" of that spectrum. This certainly bears that threat that broadcast spectrum would not be deemed as having a "fair commercial value" as the value to the broadcaster – but might instead be taxed at some higher perceived value if it were to be used for broadband purposes. Harry Jessell, in Friday’s TV NewsCheck has a great analysis of this potential use of spectrum taxes to force the surrender of TV spectrum – called Seaside or Spectrum: It’s Still Extortion.
Broadcasters, of course, have to deal with all of these fires at once. The NAB responded to the White House Memorandum with a letter to the President’s Director of Economic Policy Council with a statement agreeing to work with the government to find spectrum to meet broadband needs, but emphasizing that any spectrum reclamation must be voluntary and must not compromise the free, over-the-air television service on which the public relies, and the new technologies like mobile DTV (the deployment of which the FCC is encouraging) which television broadcasters plan to commercially launch using their new digital capabilities later this year.
And finally, as all of these political issues affecting the grab for TV spectrum are being debated, it’s worth looking at what has happened to television spectrum that has already been given up for supposedly new and innovative services. As part of the digital transition, television gave up what used to be Channels 52-69, which were then, for the most part, auctioned to commercial users for flexible new systems – including potentially for broadband. One of the biggest aggregators of spectrum was Qualcomm, who introduced its FLO TV system, to deliver media content to mobile users across the country. This week, there were several press reports suggesting that the service was not a success, and that Qualcomm was looking to sell it or the spectrum. Perhaps the highest and best use as decided by an auction is not always in fact the highest and best use, and the government needs to be careful in trying to assess the "fair commercial value" when that value may already be realized by current users.
An eventful summer so far – TV broadcasters should keep a careful watch of what the Fall may bring.