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FCC takes first step toward clearing TV spectrum for wireless broadband Internet use
12/2/2010

The FCC advanced its agenda of clearing spectrum used by the nation’s over-the-air TV broadcasters Nov. 30 to meet the goals laid out in its National Broadband Plan with adoption of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.

The NPRM lays out three proposals, including adding new coprimary allocations for fixed and mobile wireless service in the TV band; establishing a regulatory framework for two or more TV stations to share the same 6MHz channel; and consideration of ways to increase the utility of VHF bands for transmission of DTV services.

A key aim of the NPRM is to revamp existing regulations to open up 120MHz of spectrum for future wireless Internet applications. The notice affects the low VHF band (54MHz-72MHz, Channels 2-4, and 76MHz-88MHz, Channels 5 and 6), the high VHF band (174MHz-216MHz, Channels 7-13) and the UHF bands (470MHz-608MHz, Channels 14-36, and 614MHz-698MHz, Channels 38-51).

The NPRM proposes to add allocations for fixed and mobile services in these bands and to change the U.S. Table of Frequency Allocations in Section 2.106 of commission rules to accommodate these new users on a coprimary basis.

One way to free spectrum is to allow multiple stations to share the same 6MHz channel assignment. The NPRM proposes that licensees of stations sharing channels via ATSC multicasting would have “the same rights and service obligations as a licensee operating from a full channel today, including the right to carriage by cable and satellite providers pursuant to the rules for mandatory carriage or retransmission consent.”

The NPRM envisions various channel sharing scenarios and states that the only requirement would be that all stations participating in such an arrangement would be required to retain enough spectrum to operate one SD channel.

The notice asks for comments on a wide variety of issues raised by a channel sharing arrangement, including whether commercial and noncommercial educational stations should be allowed to share a channel; whether to require preservation of a certain level of TV service in the shared-channel environment, particularly because shared channels would require shared transmission facilities, which could change coverage areas for the stations involved; and the implications of sharing on media ownership rules.

The notice also seeks comment on a variety of questions involved in making VHF channels more appealing to broadcasters. Since the DTV transition, some DTV broadcasters have had “difficulty in ensuring consistent reception of VHF signals,” the commission noted in the NPRM. The notice seeks comment on technical changes to commission rules, TV transmission equipment and receiver technology that would improve VHF TV broadcasting.

The NPRM seeks comment on many issues related to improving VHF service, including whether there are actions that could be taken to reduce noise levels in the VHF band; amending commission rules to increase maximum allowable ERP for VHF stations at least in Zone 1, specifically by raising the nominal maximum allowed ERP for low-VHF stations in Zone 1 to 40kW and for high-VHF stations in Zone 1 to 120kW if the station’s antenna height above average terrain is 1000ft or less; the need for and desirability of FCC regulation of indoor antennas to ensure that they are effective for low-VHF channel reception; and additional, unspecified ways to improve VHF reception.

The NPRM is the first of many steps that must be taken before the commission can achieve its spectrum clearing goal. Another, and arguably even more important step, is Congressional authorization of so-called incentive auctions that would allow TV broadcasters giving up spectrum to share in the proceeds of an auction of that spectrum.

Beyond that, other significant, technical changes may be on the table. For example, in comments given before voting for the NPRM, Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker said that in the future other proposals must be discussed, “including the possibility of a broadcast transition from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4, the adoption of a more cellularized broadcast system or a transition from ATSC to OFDM technologies.”

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