Putting Spectrum to Work

March 22, 2012

For the first time in almost two decades, broadcasters head to Las Vegas free from worrying about major deadlines—whether it was the DTV transition or more recently FCC Chairman Genachowski's National Broadband Plan and the threats to broadcasters' livelihoods. Between the angst over DTV deadline delays and uncertainty over the FCC's attempted spectrum grab, most broadcasters will probably be relieved that the only deadline they're facing at this year's show is getting loudness under control.

But whether it's loudness or something else, broadcasters face some intangible deadlines that could be just as important as what we've faced in recent decades. Now that Congress has codified the FCC's spectrum auction plans, how do broadcasters stay relevant in the wireless age? And how do we make the best of what we have? The fight over spectrum reminded us of how valuable this resource is—now it's up to us to put this spectrum to work.

Broadcasters can thank the NAB for helping craft legislation that helped thwart direct threats to stations by maintaining that such spectrum transactions remain "voluntary" and that stations that do decide to return their spectrum be adequately compensated. But this doesn't necessarily remove the threat either. While it will take some time for the commission to formulate the process of spectrum auctions, broadcasters can help alleviate that threat by putting their spectrum to the fullest use possible.

Take multicasting for example. Broadcasters have had the ability to multicast for more than two decades and according to Media Access Pro, the BIA/Kelsey database, more than 2,150 multicast signals are now being beamed out by local TV stations. Those signals are in addition to their main channel, so this means that nearly 4,000 broadcast channels are available to over-the-air viewers in the U.S. Many cord cutters have been pleasantly surprised to "discover" the wealth of free channels available via their antenna. As the costs of adding multicast signals are reduced, we need to continue to ramp up access to new channels.

And then there's Mobile DTV. The rollout has been slower than many expected; however more than 120 stations are now on the air with Mobile DTV and the first contract with a cellular provider will bring this (hopefully free) service to hundreds of thousands of new customers later this year. But DTV is just one of several services that could take advantage of the technology; datacasting and a proposed "overlay" service to help wireless carriers offload their signals to broadcasters during peak times are just some of the potential technologies that could help broadcasters (and their wireless competitors) make the best use of their spectrum.

In our NAB preview story in this issue, one inside-the-beltway attorney put it best when he said, "The more use [broadcasters] are making of their 19.4 Mbps, the less likely the FCC will be to pressure them to sell. You don't want to be sitting there with one standard-definition television stream. You're a big sitting duck."

There's no set deadline for making our business more relevant in the age of wireless devices. That deadline is already here and spectrum use will be (or at least should be) topic number one in the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center next month.

Have a great show.

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