McAdams On: Cable Skirmish Won’t Derail Spectrum Reclamation

The focus of the government’s broadband strategy is now on the cable industry, giving broadcasters a chance to regroup for the continuing spectrum onslaught. FCC regulators bunched the collective BVDs of cable providers recently with news of potentially reclassifying Internet service like landline telephone service.

This came after a federal court told the FCC to please remove its sticky fingers from Comcast’s broadband network. Regulators had put the screws to Comcast for throttling peer-to-peer traffic to preserve bandwidth for regular schmucks to spam friends with bawdy e-mails. The court said Comcast could throttle away under the current broadband classification. So the FCC said, “We shall then reclassify you.” To which the big broadband providers replied, “We shall then invest our capital elsewhere.”

And this will go on until someone shoots an eye out.

Meanwhile, there’s the action agenda—the 64 proceedings set forth by the FCC to execute the National Broadband Plan. The one to reclaim broadcast spectrum for broadband is about two months away. That’s precious time for an industry that squeaked through 2009 like a rusty bicycle.

Applying it to a full-court press on spectrum inventory is an option. The House of Representatives passed legislation requiring one, but the bill is hung up in the Senate over its projected $20 million price tag. Spectrum inventory opposition between the House and Senate means the FCC will get caught in the middle. Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher, who favors the inventory and chairs the House Communications Subcommittee, will toss wrenches into the action agenda every step of the way. It’s a perfect opportunity for the broadcast lobbies to say, “Oh, look! We found a compromise spectrum inventory plan right here.”

Broadcasters after all are not opposed to 100 Mbps à la the broadband plan. They are opposed to reconfiguring their plants a second time within a few years based on cell-phone company assertions about phantom spectrum shortages. What a compromise spectrum inventory plan might look like is anyone’s guess, but it was broadcasters who figured out their own channel remapping plan for the DTV transition.

Broadcasting remains one of the most innovative industries in business, despite assertions to the contrary. The government said, “Go digital,” and the industry figured out how to do it, ushering in high-definition technology, multicast channels, 3DTV and soon, mobile DTV. The progress continues even as the FCC plans its spectrum ambush, while Verizon is halting the build-out of its fiber network. The carrier hasn’t specified why, but uncertainty about the fed’s own broadband intentions is a reasonable assumption. Who needs fiber for 50 Mbps when there’s 100 Mbps in the air via an initiative in which Verizon would clearly have to participate.

Broadcasters have the most at risk in the broadband game, wherever the media focus may fall. The spectrum battle hasn’t gone away.