Radio frequency electromagnetic radiation is the technology that makes broadcasting possible. Certain portions of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum mostly used by TV broadcasters are under assault from multiple directions. Politics, sometimes political, sometimes corporate and association-based, seem to be at the root of the attacks. Although spectrum reallocation is mostly advertised as a benefit to public service, first responders, nationwide broadband and a way to service the national debt, greed and jealously appear to be lurking just below the surface in the motivation mix.
Some say the U.S. OTA broadcasting business model is as obsolete and unnecessary as the horizontal and vertical hold control knobs as shown in Figure 1. Never mind that broadcasters have been achieving success since AT&T began selling "toll broadcasting" to advertisers in 1922. Ham radio operators started the broadcasting business. The first Radio Act of 1912 licensed “experimental” radio stations including 1XE, owned by Hal Power. 1XE broadcast music and voice programming and rented air time on the station to other parties. As other experimental stations began broadcasting regularly, they began to sell sponsorships to finance or underwrite a radio broadcast in exchange for on air mentions. Most agree that the first paid radio ad in the U.S. was for an apartment complex. It aired in New York in 1922. The first U.S. television ad aired 70 years ago on July 1, 1941. The Bulova Watch Company paid $9 for the 20 second ad, which aired prior to a televised baseball game.
For decades, a commercial broadcast FCC license was generally regarded as a license to print money. Most casual observers saw dollar signs, but insiders knew much of the revenue stations generated was necessarily reinvested into facilities and infrastructure. While revenues have become more difficult to obtain, infrastructure reinvestment continues to be a major expense at nearly every broadcast facility. Much of the more expensive infrastructure at many stations is the transmitter, antenna and related STL and microwave links.
Everyone has an opinion
It appears everyone feels the need to weigh in on the spectrum issue. Microsoft is leading the way for the computer industry, as it lobbied the FCC to allow unlicensed devices to use open TV spectrum white spaces. The FCC agreed but required such devices to connect with an available spectrum database before operating. Is that a solution? The jury is still out because no such working devices have appeared on the market yet. But it does seem to be a step in the right direction.
In many politicians' minds, spectrum equals money. Talk of spectrum auctions date back to the late '80s before HD or DTV, when politicians were touting such auctions could pay off the entire national debt. What sounded like an interesting idea became more crucial when demand for spectrum suddenly increased.
TV broadcasters have a very expensive infrastructure in place, some built frequencies that are, or soon will be, up for auction. Moving from one channel to another is not as easy or inexpensive as many nonbroadcasters might think. Money for such massive changes is difficult to generate, particularly in smaller markets. Local broadcasters are competing every day for their position and share of the market and revenue among the hundreds of channels carried on many cable and satellite services, and they are the only ones with channel-specific transmitters and antennas.
A decade ago, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the NAB were best friends. There was lots of money to be made replacing analog TV sets. The NAB and CEA worked hard together to answer and address consumers' questions and make the DTV transition a success. Apparently, just about everyone who was going to buy a new DTV has bought one, because the CEA is no longer that friendly to TV broadcasters. The new money (some would call it the smart money) is on wireless, and wireless likes TV band spectrum.
To make its case to the public, the CEA commissioned a survey that suggested only 8 percent or so of U.S. homes receive all their television programming by traditional OTA TV reception. The NAB commissioned a similar survey among a larger sample group that found the number to be closer to 16 percent. Both surveys were intended to identify households with no other method of receiving television programming. What wasn't included were those households that may indeed have cable or satellite service, but do not use that service for every TV set in the house. Bedroom, bathroom, garage and kitchen TV sets, often used to view local news and network programming, sometimes fit that category.
In March 2010, the FCC introduced a plan to increase the nation's wireless broadband capability by repurposing unused broadcast spectrum. Thank goodness lobbying by the NAB and station groups stalled progress.
The CEA continued its assault. This March, the CEA Innovation Movement launched a website called the Spectrum Crunch Clock. It is designed to help Americans understand the costs of spectrum repurposing delay. You can see it at http://www.innovation-movement.com/?/spectrum-crunch-clock.
The Spectrum Crunch Clock tracks, according to the CEA, "the lost opportunity costs to the U.S. economy and consumers with every minute we delay responsibly managing our nation's spectrum resources. The Spectrum Crunch Clock estimates that we have been losing $14,444 per minute since the clock started ticking on March 16, 2010, when the FCC introduced the National Broadband Plan."
NAB says huh?
In response to CEA's launch of its "Spectrum Crunch Clock" website, NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton issued this statement on May 5: "Instead of engaging in productive dialogue, we've come to expect childish gimmicks and hysteria from our CEA friends. The facts are these: Broadcasters gave back 108MHz of spectrum less than two years ago, some of which has yet to be deployed. NAB has never opposed the notion of broadcasters voluntarily giving back additional spectrum, so long as nonvolunteers are held harmless. Finally, we would suggest that CEA ask Alabamans who are crediting local television with saving their lives during tornado coverage last week whether TV spectrum is 'underutilized.'"
The CEA's Innovation Movement claims to be "over 100,000 engaged citizens who believe innovation is critical to American global leadership and economic growth," and it urges consumers to take action and write their members of Congress in support of the need for more spectrum for new and innovative wireless broadband services."
The .gov solution
In 1993, Congress passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which gave the FCC authority to use competitive bidding to choose from among two or more mutually exclusive applications for an initial license. Prior to this legislation, the FCC relied on comparative hearings and lotteries to select a single licensee from a pool of mutually exclusive license applicants. Since 1994, the FCC has conducted auctions of licenses for electromagnetic spectrum. FCC auctions are conducted electronically and are accessible over the Internet. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 extended and expanded the FCC's auction authority
In its most recent National Broadband Plan, the FCC detailed plans for clearing 120MHz of television broadcast spectrum through the use of voluntary incentive spectrum auctions that would allow TV licensees that freely choose to give up some or all of their 6MHz channel to share in the proceeds generated by auctioning that spectrum.
The plan, recently introduced as H.R. 2482 lays the groundwork for the nation's first responders to deploy a state-of-the-art communications system and empowers the FCC to take steps aimed at making possible deployment of robust broadband service, including wireless Internet service.
H.R. 2482 would give the FCC the authority to conduct voluntary incentive auctions, with certain limitations important to broadcasters. The National Broadband Plan is repacking the spectrum devoted to OTA DTV transmission. Here, too, the bill limits what the FCC can do.
There are two other favorable provisions in the bill for broadcasters. One prevents the FCC from involuntarily moving TV stations from the UHF band. This limitation should make the mobile DTV service roll out easier. The other assures broadcasters that they will be reimbursed for any cost resulting from channel reassignment or mitigating "adverse impact as a result of another station's move."
A July 12 letter from NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith expressed gratitude to U.S. Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Gene Green (D-TX) for key provisions in the Public Safety Spectrum and Wireless Innovation Act aimed at preserving "the ability of all Americans to continue to receive a robust, free, over-the-air television signal."
Because the act has not been voted on, the show continues and no one can take credit for anything yet. As we broadcasters well know, the show is never over until the credits roll.