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2009 in Review: TV Broadcasters Defend Their Spectrum

When 2009 began, “white space devices” (unlicensed transmitters operating on “unoccupied” television channels) were seen as the biggest threat to off-air broadcasting. Studies showed these devices had the ability to interfere with TV reception on adjacent channels—and even cable TV reception—on the same channel. The FCC conducted tests which revealed that interference was an issue, not only to broadcast TV, but also to the many wireless mic systems used by broadcasters, churches, theaters and production companies. The rules that were adopted by the FCC put some strict requirements on the manufacturers of such white space devices, which the FCC re-branded as “TV band devices” (TVBD), perhaps an acknowledgment of the precious little “white” spectrum really available.

Surprisingly, I've seen little recent interest in pushing TVBDs, except for some demonstration setups.

Unfortunately, this lack of interest may be due to discussions going on about new spectrum allocations that would not only eliminate “white spaces” but television broadcasting as well.

The wireless industry has convinced some in the FCC that TV broadcasting is wasting valuable spectrum they could use to offer new wireless services, including broadband. This aligned with both Congressional and FCC goals of improving broadband Internet availability in the United States through the creation of a “Nation Broadband Plan.”

Companies such as EchoStar and Qualcomm bought 700 MHz channels that became available as part of the television broadcasting transition to DTV and are using it to offer subscription mobile DTV service. The popularity of the iPhone has impacted AT&T's broadband network, mainly due to the increased amount of bandwidth used for streaming video and audio. Several six MHz broadcast TV channels would help reduce the impact on their network. Based on recent announcements, it wouldn't be surprising to see consumers who take advantage of this extra bandwidth for streaming video to be asked to pay more.

While it isn't clear that everyone at the FCC supports removing spectrum for TV broadcasting and auctioning it to wireless companies (a recent update on the National Broadband Plan called for maintaining broadcast TV), it is clear that TV broadcasters are going to have to justify their need for spectrum. Proposals range from doing away with off-air TV completely, and subsidizing basic cable or satellite service for those dependent on it, to eliminating HDTV and mobile DTV broadcasting and combining SD programming into a few “community” channels shared by multiple broadcasters. A less drastic option would require that some broadcasters change channels once more to free up spectrum. In this scenario, protected service areas would be reduced and transmitting facilities moved to common antenna sites to allow the same number of stations to be packed into fewer channels, but with down-sized coverage.

Broadcasters are making the case for maintaining spectrum and coverage, as witnessed in recent filings by the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and a collection of TV stations. I'll have more on those in next week's RF Report.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.