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McAdams On: Spectrum Pressure

Hello Gordon Smith! You have your work cut out for you. The FCC is now fully engaged in killing off broadcast television, deploying its bureaucrats to get a feel for who might want to give up their spectrum license for a cut of auction proceeds. This might not wash with the guys on the NAB board, who are actual broadcasters (as if John McCain would ever let it happen).

Debt holders are another story. Broadcast bankers might like the idea of a cash payout for spectrum, and Washington clearly has no problem giving money to banks.

The spectrum reclamation movement is in full flush, and as such, rife with distortion.

The first and most persistent is that broadcasters get the spectrum for free. They receive licenses in return for fulfilling public obligations, and in turn, the public has access to free TV. The infrastructure to provide that service is by no means free, nor was the recent government-mandated upgrade to digital transmission. The billions just spent to create digital broadcasting was also intended to free up spectrum, which it did--Chs. 52-69. Most of it, as expected, went to Verizon and AT&T, and is not yet built out. Another 10 MHz hasn’t even been auctioned off.

Some of the pressure to give up spectrum is coming from the wireless giants, who started the gambit. Verizon’s lobby in Washington is one of the most powerful. It is second in influence only to Rupert Murdoch, who has to merely yawn and stretch to get an administration to sit up and roll over.

Then Motorola got into the game, blaming the 9/11 deaths of first responders on a dearth of spectrum. The loss of life was tragic, no doubt, but the spectrum argument was disingenuous. Emergency communications had long suffered from incompatible technology standards and disparate jargon. And on that fateful day, someone failed to switch on a transmitter.

Now Google, Microsoft, Dell, et al, have skin in the game, and they’ve made the Verizon team look like a bunch of geezers in seersucker slacks. Google did nothing but pretend to bid on spectrum and got nationwide access to it for free. Absolutely free. No strings attached. No public interest obligations. Nothing. White space. Free.

If white-space broadband networks work properly without taking out TV signals, most broadcasters are for it. Claudville, Va., is a perfect test bed. No carrier was going to string Claudville, Va., at the foot of the Blue Ridge. It will be interesting to see if people in the area experience TV interference, and if they have any idea what might be causing it. Chances are, since Claudville’s network just does backhaul in white space from fixed points, there won’t be much of a problem.

But the launch itself will be held up by proponents as proof positive that white-space devices work, bar none. The fox’s nose is in the door.

Broadcasters will have to be nimble in this environment. A head-on battle won’t do. They’ll lose. Too many people get cable and satellite. The notion of over-the-air television is a waste of spectrum to a generation that needs it for texting in traffic. What truly is a “waste” of spectrum is arguable, of course. If you’re a carrier or you have stock in one, not getting subscription fees from spectrum is one form of waste. If you’re a tech giant or a stockholder, it’s not having an operating system that rules the airwaves.

Why it is that Americans want to pay for something that ostensibly belongs to them, I’ll never quite now. But that’s just a reflection of the press and the blogosphere, which are one and the same these days. I’m not so sure that all of America is really fine with the cessation of free TV for all time. The public deserves to realize what’s really going on in Washington, D.C., and they deserve to know that if broadcast TV goes away, it’s never coming back.