ALEXANDRIA, VA.—For many broadcasters, live news operations are the most important feature of their local service—exactly the reason why the FCC granted them licenses in the first place. The lifeline broadcasters use for live news is the Broadcast Auxiliary Service spectrum from 2025 to 2110 MHz, which they use to establish broadcast-quality remote links from crime and disaster scenes.
Less than three years after an expensive and lengthy retuning of the BAS band at the request of the cellular industry, that industry’s trade association is recommending to the FCC that the BAS band be restructured again. The result of that request would be to auction off 15 MHz of BAS bandwidth to wireless companies for mobile broadband services.
“[This band] has favorable spectrum propagation characteristics, and is contiguous and adjacent to current mobile broadband allocations,” said Scott Bergmann, assistant vice president, regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association. “Given these characteristics and the promise of pairing this band with the 1695-1710 MHz band, identified by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for reallocation for commercial mobile broadband use, CTIA believes that the band is ideally suited for mobile broadband and should be carefully examined by the FCC.”
The wireless industry’s problem is that demand for wireless connectivity is exploding, while spectrum to carry the signals is a finite resource.
Dennis Wharton, executive vice president for communications for the National Association of Broadcasters “In 2012, mobile video traffic exceeded 50 percent of wireless traffic for the first time,” Bergmann said. “By 2017, it is projected that two-thirds of the world’s mobile data traffic will be video— a 16-fold increase from 2012 to 2017.”
Many in the television industry will recall that Nextel, which later became Sprint Nextel, was awarded a slice of the 2 GHz BAS spectrum in 2004. That kicked off the Sprint Nextel 2 GHz relocation project, which started at the end of 2004 and ran for more than five and a half years. The 2 GHz relocation project reportedly cost Sprint Nextel around $750 million, which was used to replace microwave equipment at most of the nation’s full-power TV stations.
Although there was a great deal of grumbling from broadcasters at the beginning of the Sprint Nextel project, the industry was more-or-less satisfied with the result when it was completed in August 2010. At that time, NAB’s president and CEO Gordon H. Smith congratulated the wireless industry on how the relocation effort was handled.
“The National Association of Broacasters congratulates Sprint on completing the herculean task of transitioning the broadcast auxiliary services to a new, more efficient spectrum plan in the 2 GHz frequency band,” Smith said at the time. “NAB’s members worked closely with Sprint’s network of engineers, technicians and other skilled personnel. We applaud the successful result that we all achieved, despite the highly complex, comprehensive nature of the BAS transition.”
The warm feelings at the end of the Sprint Nextel project have dissipated and the NAB is now sounding a skeptical note about the latest attempt to acquire another chunk of spectrum that broadcasters rely on.
“Broadcasters were able to relinquish some BAS spectrum a few years ago because it coincided with a switch from analog to digital, which enabled broadcasters to more efficiently use a smaller amount of BAS spectrum,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president for communications for the NAB. “We know that a dedicated BAS spectrum band serves as a safety net to ensure we’re able to cover breaking news as it happens and inform people about encroaching danger, without worrying about potential interference from mobile broadband. Auctioning off more BAS spectrum for wireless broadband would put in jeopardy broadcasters’ role as first informers.”
Getting access to spectrum now lawfully used by broadcasters will take a serious proposal, and wireless customers using their cellphones to watch cat videos dosn’t have the gravitas necessary to make the case. Therefore, the CTIA and cellular companies are moving to carry more of the emergency warning burden that’s now firmly the responsibility of broadcasters.
The NAB’s Wharton thinks that would be a dangerous move.
“Anyone who lived in ‘Superstorm Sandy’’ s path can tell you about the cellphone network outages the storm caused, as we’ve seen time and again during emergencies,” he said. “Even when cellular service does not crash, the one-to-one architecture of cell networks becomes congested, in contrast to broadcasting’s ability to reach whole communities via its one-to-everyone architecture.”
As for using a cellular service to replace the current Emergency Alert System, Wharton thinks that is unfeasible.
“Wireless emergency alerts are limited to messages of 90 characters—just enough to tell people to tune into their local TV or radio station,” he said. “In contrast, broadcasters can provide continuous reporting from the field covering all aspects of an emergency.”
Still, the CTIA and the companies that it represents are powerful, and Congress and the Obama administration are attuned to the concept of getting more connectivity for their constituents. The Sprint Nextel 2 GHz relocation showed that broadcasters could be flexible in releasing some of their BAS spectrum, so there may be an assumption that it would be reasonable to dip again into the same spectrum well.
“Congress directed the FCC to identify, reallocate, auction, and license its 15 MHz of spectrum by February 2015,” CTIA’s Bergmann said. “We hope that the FCC will seek comment on reallocating the 2095- 2110 [MHz segment] for mobile broadband use, and expect that the FCC would work with all interested parties to develop an appropriate relocation schedule.”
A knowledgeable insider at the Sprint Nextel 2 GHz relocation project said that a second relocation would probably be quicker and less expensive than the one Sprint undertook because of all the new equipment available, as well as the better understanding the broadcasters and manufacturers should have of broadcasters’ systems. However, completing it by February 2015 doesn’t seem likely considering that there is not even an agreement that the spectrum will be given to the wireless companies.
According to CTIA, reported wireless data traffic from July 2011 to June 2012 over all U.S. wireless devices totaled 1.16 trillion megabytes, compared to 568 billion megabytes the year before. That’s a year-over-year increase of 104 percent.
There are two ways to look at the resources necessary for wireless companies to provide the required bandwidth to their customers. One is by them acquiring and using more spectrum, which also means that cellular customers will need new phones and wireless devices to connect to the new spectrum.
The other is for wireless companies to acquire and outfit more cellular “towers,” whether they be actual towers, buildings or other structures. Neither of these is inexpensive, and both are likely going to be necessary for the wireless industry to reach its projections for the next few years.
The FCC will have to decide if the BAS spectrum is the right place to feed the seemingly insatiable wireless industry.