Broadcast group pitches alternative to incentive auctions

In an apparent last-ditch effort to avoid government-backed incentive auctions, the Coalition for Free TV and Broadband has proposed a point-to-multipoint scheme for broadband distribution — something it claims is a more efficient and profitable way to distribute broadband signals.

The plan asked the FCC to allow television stations to broaden their services, allowing them to transmit wireless traffic during peak periods of broadband usage in a way similar to traditional broadcasting of video signals. The broadcasters would share five percent of such ancillary revenue with the U.S. government, which the groups claim could be worth as much as $216 billion.

Made up of mostly low-power television stations and backed by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the collection of broadcasters told an audience at the National Press Club that its plan would avert a spectrum shortage by providing a vastly more efficient way to deliver the bandwidth-intensive broadband traffic. It would provide, the group claimed, more than $60 billion in new revenue to the U.S. Treasury within the first 15 years.

Though both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are close to passing a plan to authorize incentive auctions, the coalition called on them to consider alternatives within the existing television band. The auctions are now being considered on Capitol Hill by a super committee examining budget issues.

“The 1996 Act authorizes television broadcasters to provide ‘ancillary’ services in their digital broadcasts, subject to remitting a portion of the revenues derived from those services to the Treasury,” the group said. “But no meaningful market for ancillary services has emerged. The reason is simple: Television broadcasters are required by law to operate with a very specific technical standard. Unlike wireless service and most other core communications services, the FCC prohibits broadcasters from freely adopting and implementing new technologies. This has artificially limited innovation, particularly in the provision of ancillary services.”

It may be difficult to turn around the FCC, which is backed by the Obama Administration, so late in the game. Irwin Podhajser, chairman of group, met with commission and members of Congress last month in an effort to make sure that Class A TVs, LPTVs and TV translators are not forgotten in legislation involving the spectrum auction battle. Such low-power broadcasters are considered at risk since the FCC regards them as providers of secondary television services.

Sinclair was the only major broadcaster to back the group.

“The efficiency of broadcast distribution for bandwidth-intensive data, especially highquality video, cannot be matched,” said Mark Aitken, vice president of Advanced Technology of Sinclair Broadcast Group. “And most of the growth in mobile data demand is driven by mobile video use. Eliminating destructive regulations and giving broadcasters the flexibility to innovate and compete will yield huge service improvements for Americans and enormous gains for the Treasury.”

NAB, the broadcasters’ chief lobbyist, has not directly opposed to auctions. However, it wants broadcasters to retain the same coverage areas and interference protections as now. Podhaiser sees a different scenario, with low-power stations and hundreds of full-power stations threatened by the government plan.

The one-to-many broadcast scenario is not new. James Goodmon, chief of Capitol Broadcasting, pitched the idea to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowksi last winter. He said he received a cordial reception, but the FCC did not change its mind. It is not expected to this time either.