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Broadcast on the Chopping Block

Broadcasters could lose 40 percent of their spectrum under the FCC’s new National Broadband Plan. The goal is to bring 100 Mbps broadband access to 100 million American homes in 10 years. It intends to do so by sweeping away any chance for Mobile DTV to get off the ground. The plan would relieve the industry of the spectrum necessary to make the mobile venture succeed.

It calls for making 500 MHz of spectrum available within 10 years; 300 of it within five years. Of that, 120 MHz is to come from television broadcasters, who now occupy roughly 300 MHz.

“Currently, the FCC has only 50 MHz in inventory, just a fraction of the amount that will be necessary to match growing demand,” the FCC said in its executive summary of the proposed plan, presented to Congress March 16. The proposal suggests incentive auctions, with proceeds to be shared “in an equitable manner with current licensees are market demands change... for example, this would allow the FCC to share auction proceeds with broadcasters who voluntarily agree to use technology to continue traditional broadcasting services with less spectrum.”

The broadcast spectrum initially would be freed up one of two ways—by channel repacking, which occurred last June with the digital transition, and/or voluntary relinquishment. A Greek chorus of lawmakers and lobbyists chimed in with kudos when the FCC issued. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said the FCC had done “a superb job in meeting the challenge set forth by Congress.” Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said it would “unleash a tidal wave of new investment and innovation.” The often prickly D.C. public-interest group Public Knowledge said the commission produced a “balanced, comprehensive and forward-looking plan that should serve the country well.” Exercising a bit more restraint, Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America said it was a “significant first step in the right direction.”

The broadcast lobby was otherwise disposed.

The NAB’s Dennis Wharton said the group was “pleased” by initial indications that spectrum reallocation would be voluntary, “however, we are concerned by reports that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised. Moreover, as the nation’s only communications service that is free, local and ubiquitous, we would oppose any attempt to impose onerous new spectrum fees on broadcasters.”

He noted that broadcasters had already returned 108 MHz of spectrum in the digital transition, and said words to the effect of “hey, what about those pending spectrum inventory bills?”

Wharton also weighed in with a reality that’s been sadly lacking in the months of lead-up to the release of the National Broadband Plan: that it overtly favors AT&T and Verizon by effectively killing Mobile DTV.

“Broadcasters are beginning the rollout of mobile DTV service,” he said. “Any reallocation of TV spectrum that would prevent or limit this service would give a competitive advantage to subscription-based mobile TV services offered by wireless providers.”

That, it seems, is the underlying point.

-- Deborah D. McAdams