The FCC today started an examination of the future of the spectrum currently used by broadcast television, beginning the formal process of implementing the ideas raised in its Broadband Plan of repurposing some of that spectrum for use by wireless broadband technologies. Specifically, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, seeking comment on a number of issues. While the full text of the FCC’s order has not been released, many of the issues for consideration can be gleaned from the comments made at the FCC meeting. In the initial presentation made about the NPRM, it was stated that the principal issues to be addressed in the NPRM were:

  • Allowing new primary allocations in the television spectrum for fixed and mobile wireless users.
  • Providing a framework that would allow two or more broadcast television stations to share a single 6 MHz channel, retaining full must-carry rights for each station, while allowing for the return of spectrum to the FCC to be auctioned for wireless uses
  • Looking at ways to increase the value of VHF television channels (channels 2 through 13) for DTV use, including proposals to allow stations operating on such channels to operate at higher power and to increase performance standards for indoor antennas

Co-primary uses could be important for many TV users, as currently LPTV and TV translator stations are secondary services, implying that such services might be preempted by new primary wireless users.  The enhancement of the VHF spectrum would be important to any attempt to dedicate significant spectrum to wireless broadband without substantial disruption to over-the-air television, as without the use of those channels (which are underutilized, particularly in urban markets, as they have proved to be very susceptible to interference and do not provide as broad coverage as VHF analog service did), the ability to repack the TV spectrum to clear portions of the spectrum for wireless would be very restricted in the major metropolitan areas where any spectrum crunch is likely to be most acute. 

As FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated, this was an efficient presentation on an important issue. The explanation of the proposals took far less time than each of the Commissioner’s individual statements, all of which raised important issues that will be addressed in this proceeding.   The FCC public notice about this proceeding is available by clicking here.  But an examination of each of the Commissioner’s statements (which are available through the links on their names, below) is important to understand the scope of the issues to be addressed by the FCC. 

Commissioner Copps spoke first, indicating that he was cautiously optimistic about the proposals. But Copps was very concerned about the potential impact on broadcast television, recognizing the public interest benefits of over-the-air television. The Commissioner stated that he believed that Digital Television provided the potential for broadcasters to develop new programming on multicast streams, especially programming addressing local needs. But he stated that he was disappointed by his perception that few broadcasters were taking advantage of the new opportunities to provide local services stating that, if broadcasters had done so, he would not be supporting efforts to redeploy some of the television spectrum to wireless broadband. In fact, Commissioner Copps suggested that, if broadcasters demonstrate a commitment to local services that use the whole of their spectrum, he could be convinced that changes in the TV band are not in the public interest. 

The Commissioner also expressed some degree of skepticism about the ability of the FCC to do anything to enhance the operation of Digital Television in the VHF band. Recounting his experience as acting FCC Chairman during the final phases of the DTV transition, and the Commission’s attempts to overcome issues that arose after stations converted to digital on VHF channels, he indicated that any real changes that would make VHF channels more useful for DTV might well be a very difficult process – but he had no objection to the FCC exploring the issue. 

Finally, he said that he hoped that parties would address whether reallocation of TV spectrum to broadband would indeed benefit consumers. He asked whether auctions of more wireless spectrum would actually lead to lower prices and more consumer-friendly wireless broadband options.

Commissioner McDowell echoed Commissioner Copps in praising the public interest benefits of broadcast television and in recounting the difficulties of using VHF channels for DTV operations during the DTV transition. McDowell raised some interesting issues not highlighted in the comments of other Commissioners, asking why broadcasters themselves could not provide some or all of the wireless broadband service that the FCC seeks. McDowell noted that broadcasters can already provide ancillary and supplemental services on portions of their television channels. If there is such a need for wireless uses of this spectrum, broadcasters themselves might be able to provide that service as an ancillary and supplemental service. McDowell specifically asked a few questions about this ability on which he would like to see comments, including:

  • Whether broadband through ancillary TV spectrum is technically feasible
  • How would it work?
  • Would such uses be faster to implement than the reclaiming of the spectrum and the use of incentive auctions?
  • Would such uses be more efficient than the other proposals being considered by the FCC?

Commissioner Clyburn was also generally supportive of exploring the issues raised by the Commission, but she was particularly concerned about the impact that any repurposing of the spectrum would have on those who are particularly reliant on over-the-air television. She stated that, during the DTV transition, the FCC noted that senior citizens and the poor were particularly reliant on over-the-air TV, and could be most impacted by any change to TV accessibility.

Commissioner Attwell Baker also had her own particular take on these issues. Commissioner Attwell Baker stated that it was important that the FCC approach these issues with an open mind – not with a preconceived notion of the final outcome. She also noted, as we have in prior articles on this topic, that it has been less than a year and a half since the end of the DTV transition, so that it was important that the FCC not now take actions that could lock any service provider into today’s technology – perhaps an indication that the FCC should not take decisions that will lock television broadcasters into their current business model. Instead, any decision should allow them to adopt new technologies – perhaps including technologies like the Mobile DTV systems that will soon roll out. Commissioner Attwell Baker’s comments were also notable for her suggestion that other technologies – like MPEG 4 instead of MPEG 2, OFDM technologies instead of the current ATSC digital television standard, and cellularized television operations – should be explored. Finally, the Commissioner suggested that the Commission should also consider the impact of its decision on the broadcaster’s public interest obligations. Should the same public interest obligations apply to a broadcaster who is sharing spectrum as currently apply to broadcasters who have a full 6 MHz to exploit?

Chairman Genachowski spoke last, and was obviously most enthusiastic about the proposal. He is looking to wireless broadband to spur the economy and to maintain American industrial competitiveness, and has identified the “beachfront” spectrum of broadcasters as ideal for this use. He was particularly concerned with broadcasters who were not now currently using their entire 6 MHz allocation – likening a television channel to a train, and the unused capacity to empty boxcars. He suggested that channel sharing arrangements would give broadcasters the opportunity to cooperatively fill the empty boxcars. He also remarked that it was an inefficient use of the spectrum to dedicate so much of it to a service that only 10% of the population use (claiming that only 10% of the population gets their video programming over the air). The Chairman said that this was the time to begin exploring the issues raised by this proposal, even before Congress has approved incentive auctions, as the FCC will be poised to move quickly once that authority is granted. 

There are obviously weighty issues to be discussed in this proceeding.  We will write more about the proposals when we have reviewed the full texts of the FCC rulemaking notice. But all interested parties should be prepared to file comments on the important issues raised by the NPRM when the comment filing dates are established.