Broadcasters still wary of broadband use predictions

As the FCC continues to pore over the comments filed by broadcasters and wireless industry proponents that are hoping to obtain some of the broadcast spectrum, the metrics being used to attempt to solve the problem are in serious doubt, at least as far as the broadcast industry is concerned.

Scott Patrick is a senior attorney with Dow Lohnes, a law firm in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, GA, that represents several broadcast station group owners as well as Sezmi, a startup that hopes to use the ATSC standard to distribute a new pay-TV service based on both DTV transmission and Internet video. He said that the claims of a looming spectrum shortage due to increased consumer demand may be greatly exaggerated. Patrick, who has been working for more than 10 years and is well versed in broadcast issues, helped write and file comments with the commission for his clients as part of the FCC’s fact-finding activities. The FCC wants to reallocate some DTV spectrum for a national broadband plan that would bring free Internet service to all Americans.

“The FCC had asked for data and most if not all broadcasters tried to respond in good faith,” Patrick said. “Some were more successful than others.”

In Patrick’s mind (and that of his clients), there is a lot of doubt about whether or not the claims of a looming spectrum shortage are real or not. Like many broadcasters involved in the ongoing national debate, Patrick’s clients want to know how the government intends to prove the availability of spectrum. Predictions from representatives for the FCC and the wireless industry have been all over the map.

“There doesn't seem to be much scrutiny of those claims,” Patrick said, referring to future demand forecasts. “The kinds of forecasts we’ve seen regarding potential consumer wireless broadband demand are orders of magnitude, maybe a thousand times increase from what is available today. However, the kinds of increases in spectrum to broadband service that the government’s proposed plan includes are really two to three times more. So even if the government is successful in obtaining part of a station’s 6MHz channel, it would still be wholly inadequate to satisfy this supposed future demand. This means it will only address 1 or 2 percent of the problem. Does this solve the government’s problem in trying to bring broadband to the masses? We don't think so.”

While most of the broadcast industry is in lock step on not relinquishing spectrum, there are some who have expressed interest in receiving monetary compensation for parts of their spectrum. If enough stations agree to receive compensation — and Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative, said he’s spoken to many that would — the broadcast industry’s position of holding on to all of its spectrum for public interest reasons could be weakened and its leverage in Congress reduced.

NAB president Gordon Smith, a former U.S. senator from Oregon, said he thinks he has the support to maintain the status quo as far as spectrum allocation. That’s because broadcasters continue to provide a service that is extremely popular with (and invaluable to) consumers.

“Broadcasters are charging into 2010 working with innovative organizations like Sezmi and the Open Mobile Video Coalition that improve the quality, delivery and accessibility of broadcast content,” said Gordon Smith, NAB’s president. “Such services represent the vibrant future of broadcast-based services that will greatly benefit the public, and cannot be replicated by broadband. Their foundation is the digital television spectrum.”

At the highest levels of the industry there is general agreement on what stations can do without disrupting their business, Patrick said, however, the various plans under consideration have been debated among stations themselves, which they believe is important to developing some type of solution that satisfies everyone involved.

“Our question is, ‘is this really enough spectrum to solve the problem of bringing Internet to everyone, and is the government ready to get involved in solving yet another round of signal interference issues?’” Patrick asked, echoing his clients concerns. “The FCC has asked for a lot of data from broadcasters. We’d like to see some real data from the wireless industry on how taking spectrum away from broadcasters is going to help the government in its efforts. Let me be clear that the broadcast industry wants to be part of the solution, but it’s difficult to disrupt a station’s business and technical operations when we feel there are other ways to get to where the government wants to be.”

How much spectrum the government wants to “reclaim” is still in discussion. The FCC has been reluctant to provide exact requirements, but the upcoming report to Congress will have a number of options, including bunching or “grouping” up to four stations on a single channel to free up space.

“There is a real hardship that stations will incur if they are forced to give up spectrum,” Patrick said. “Stations could lose the ability to transmit secondary digital channels (subchannels) and such ancillary terrestrial services as mobile video.”

He added, “It’s going to be very difficult for stations to remain competitive if they are hamstrung to a 20th century service of traditional television.”

Patrick said his clients, and indeed most broadcasters, want to have the flexibility to respond to market demand and to respond to technological innovation.

“I think you can make the case that if broadcasters and all FCC licensees have flexibility, they can respond in ways that the government really is not capable of doing,” he said. “There are some presumptions in the national broadband plan that we think deserve more scrutiny. Over-the-air broadcasting continues to be the most efficient way to distribute content to masses of consumers from a single transmission point. So, we think broadcasters should have a place in any national solution. That’s why the industry is actively participating in the proceedings and is hopeful for a positive outcome.

The FCC’s report on a broadband plan is due in February, although the FCC has asked for an extension until March.

The question remains whether broadcasters have any leverage to hold on to the spectrum that was originally given to them for free to move from analog to DTV signals. Many anticipate that when the FCC does release its report, it could take up to a year or more of further debate and lawsuits before a final plan is approved and implemented.

“We’re certainly in the very early stages of this whole debate and looking at a minimum of a year-long process,” Patrick said. “I think there should be some focus on feasibility. This plan, whatever it turns out to be, has to be fairly easy to implement or it won't work seamlessly, and the government will be left with another DTV crisis. I don't think anyone wants that.”