taking television spectrum for wireless

Congress finally has given to the FCC authority to conduct spectrum auctions to reclaim parts of the TV spectrum for wireless users, and most DC-based industry associations, including the NAB, have reacted favorably. For a process that was so controversial, this seems like a very favorable result. Television stations, in particular, will have much relief from concerns about the forced-reallocation of their operations to less favorable spectrum. While most trade press reports have reported on these statements and the very general outlines of the legislation, few have looked closely at the provisions that apply to the broadcaster auctions. Just what do they provide?

The auction provisions were adopted as part of the legislation that just extended the Social Security payroll tax deduction rollbacks, extended unemployment benefits, and fixed certain limitations that had arisen on Medicare reimbursements to doctors. All these benefits needed offsetting revenues to avoid unduly increasing the Federal deficit, and the one seemingly easy place to “find” money, was through spectrum auctions. So Congress ordered the President to identify certain Federal spectrum that could be made available for wireless users, and also authorized the FCC to conduct auctions of broadcast spectrum, but under the very specific guidelines set out below.Continue Reading Congress Authorizes FCC Incentive Auctions to Clear Part of Broadcast TV Spectrum for Wireless Broadband Users – The Details of the Legislation

The battle over the reclamation of television spectrum for wireless broadband rages on, and some in the television industry fear that the future of over-the-air television may be sacrificed to Congressional attempts to reduce the Federal deficit. The current Congressional “Super Committee” that is attempting to find billions of dollars in spending reductions to lower the Federal deficit is reportedly considering “finding” potentially 20 billion dollars or more from the proceeds of an auction of spectrum reclaimed from television broadcasters. Various Congressional proposals have been submitted for the committee’s consideration, essentially to authorize the FCC to conduct “incentive auctions” to reclaim some TV spectrum. But, the National Association of Broadcasters and others have claimed that broadcast television service to a number of markets, particularly those in areas near the Canadian border and in urban, densely populated northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, will be particularly hard hit – imperiling the continued existence of free over-the-air service to some markets, including Detroit. In other markets, broadcasters fear there will be a lessening of the protections from interference that stations currently enjoy, or a repacking of the spectrum that will put stations on new and potentially inferior channels, without reimbursement of the costs of relocation.

The proposal for the reclamation of television spectrum was first advanced in the Commission’s Broadband Report, where the FCC committee that drafted the report suggested that as much as 120 MHz of television spectrum  be reclaimed for use for wireless broadband – 20 television channels from 32 to 51 on the TV dial.  With tablets and smartphone usage growing quickly, and the ever-increasing demands for wireless spectrum to deliver video, audio and other rich internet content, the Commission fears a spectrum shortage – especially in certain urban markets. As over-the-air viewing rates have been falling over the last two decades as more people sign up with multichannel carriers, the Report suggested that the TV band could be shrunk, with some of the spectrum being redistributed to wireless. TV stations could be incentivized to surrender their spectrum for wireless use or to share channels, an option that the proponents of reclamation claim is very feasible, as digital technologies now allow one television channel to rebroadcast multiple streams of programming.

Television broadcasters have fought back, claiming that, while the digital transition does allow for more channels in the same spectrum, they are just now rolling out new uses of that spectrum – including new programming streams and, soon, mobile video targeted to smartphones and other digital devices. An article in one newspaper  last week reviews some of the new ways for over-the-air TV viewers to get access to additional video programming to augment over-the-air programs, allowing some consumers to “cut the cord” – eliminating their multichannel video subscriptions. Some studies have suggested that such cord-cutting opportunities, combined with the recent economic turmoil, has actually increased the amount of over-the-air television viewing in the last few years, reversing or slowing the trend of decreasing broadcast TV viewership.Continue Reading Reclaiming Over-the-Air TV Spectrum for Wireless Broadband Use – What Will the Budget Super Committee Decide?

The Commission is worried about the future of the broadcast media, and they are trying to figure out what they can do.  The last two weeks have been full of news about actions being taken by the FCC which may or may not lead to a reshaping of broadcasting as we know it.  We wrote about the discussion of re-purposing some or all of the television spectrum for wireless broadband users.  We also told you about the workshops to be held this week as the first step in the Commission’s Quadrennial review of it multiple ownership rules – looking at whether to allow more media consolidation to help broadcasters compete in the new media landscape or, conversely, whether there should be a reexamination of the existing rules to make them more restrictive against big media.  Last week, the Commission announced two more actions – the appointment of a Senior Advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to study "the future of media in a changing technological landscape", and a workshop on "Capitalization Strategies for Small and Disadvantaged Businesses."  What is the impact of all of these actions?

The appointment of the Senior Advisor, Steven Waldman, is perhaps the most interesting action.  Mr. Waldman, the founder of the website Belief.net (recently sold to News Corp), is charged with determining how the FCC can assure that the media will serve the public interest in the 21st century, and that "all Americans receive the information, educational content, and news they seek."  He is instructed to work with all Bureaus to determine how best to implement these ambitious goals.  It is interesting that, while one might be inclined to look at this with the assumption that his charge is to look at broadcasting, the public notice announcing his appointment and his charge does not once use the word "broadcast" or "broadcasting."  Instead, it talks almost exclusively about the new media and technology and the potential that they have for serving the public good.Continue Reading FCC Senior Advisor to Chairman to Study Media Change and a Workshop on Media Financing for Small Business – Looking to Reinvent the Broadcast Industry?

An article from TV NewsCheck last week reported on an approach by an FCC representative to television operators, floating an idea that the FCC would "buy" TV spectrum from existing television station operators, and repurpose that spectrum for wireless users – presumably some sort of wireless broadband.  The funds to buy the spectrum would come from the auction of the frequencies.  Over-the-air TV viewers would perhaps be left with a limited over-the-air service.  Today, another article cites a study filed at the Commission that suggests that the auction of TV spectrum could bring in more than three times the value of what that spectrum is for broadcasting.  Could these developments grow into a ground swell that could signal the end of over-the-air television?  Nicholas Negroponte made the much quoted observation almost 15 years ago, before the Internet was the multi-media service that it is today – that communications devices that were wired will become unwired, and those that were wireless would become wired – the "Negroponte Switch" or the process of "unwiring."  But is this switch inevitable for television, and is it in the industry’s best interest?

The theory of unwiring looked at the growing demands of wireless data networks for more and more bandwidth. While voice and data services were, at one time, wired services (the plain old telephone, the fax, even the telegraph), more and more of that information is now being digitally packaged and delivered wirelessly.  At the same time, video programming was delivered through wireless over-the-air television (though no one ever referred to it as "wireless"), but each year is more and more delivered by wired means (by cable companies and what used to be telephone companies).  At this point, estimates are that only a bit more than 10% of television households get their television programming exclusively from over-the-air reception.  Looking at this transition, some have theorized that the progression would continue, and the broadcast services would end up being delivered to fixed locations by wire, while the data services would be delivered wirelessly.Continue Reading Could Calls on the FCC for More Spectrum Lead to the End of Over The Air TV?