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FCC broadband plan calls for recouping of 120MHz of TV spectrum

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today made public its long-awaited National Broadband Plan, laying out a roadmap for ubiquitous broadband Internet service and recommending the agency reclaim 120MHz of TV spectrum to reach its goal of freeing 500MHz for future wireless broadband Internet service.

The report, due in Congress today, cites various forecasts of future bandwidth requirements, including one from Cisco Systems that projects by 2014 North American wireless networks will need to carry 740PB per month to meet demand, 40 times more than today. Meeting its spectrum goal will require profound rule changes affecting many incumbent spectrum users, including over-the-air broadcasters.

The report identifies TV spectrum as being “well-suited to the provision of mobile broadband services” because of its excellent propagation characteristics. It calls for the commission to launch a rule-making proceeding to reallocate 120MHz from the TV band for wireless broadband use by:

• updating rules on TV service areas and distance separations and revise the Table of Allotments to ensure the most efficient allotment of 6MHz channel assignments as a starting point;
• establishing a licensing framework to permit two or more stations to share a 6MHz channel;
• determining rules for auctions of broadcast spectrum reclaimed through repacking and voluntary channel sharing;
• exploring alternatives — including changes in broadcast technical architecture, an overlay license auction or more extensive channel sharing — in the event the preceding recommendations do not yield a significant amount of spectrum; and
• taking additional measures to increase efficiency of spectrum use in the broadcast TV bands.

According to the report, simply repacking channel assignments to fit stations’ 6MHz channel assignments into fewer channels could free up 36MHz. If the technical rules defining service areas and the distance required to separate stations were changed, stations may be able to “operate at currently prohibited spacing on the same or adjacent channels without increasing interference to unacceptable levels,” the report says. When repacking is done in combination with these changes to technical rules, “the amount of spectrum recovered could be substantially greater,” it adds.

In recommending a new broadcast licensing framework to let two or more stations share the same 6MHz channel, the report identifies additional spectrum savings. Any change, however, should retain carriage rights for the primary signal of each station sharing a 6MHz channel, the report says. According to the report, “two stations could each broadcast a primary video stream in HD simultaneously over the same channel without causing material changes in the current consumer viewing experience.”

However, it states some viewers may lose over-the-air reception of some stations due to this channel-sharing recommendation as well as changes to technical rules resulting in increased interference. It advises that the commission should take steps to ensure viewers in rural and smaller markets continue to receive service and “are not significantly impacted.”

The report acknowledges that multicasting and mobile DTV must be factored in to how the commission proceeds. However, it points out that to date, there are about 1400 multicast stations — “fewer than one per station on average” — on-air and that the business model for mobile is “uncertain.” Still, mobile DTV could play an important role as an “evolution path for broadcasters to fixed/mobile and broadcast/broadband convergence,” and the mobile DTV could help “offload growing streaming traffic from mobile point-to-point broadband networks.”

The plan also calls on Congress to authorize the commission to conduct “incentive auctions” of spectrum relinquished by TV broadcasters whereby they would “receive a share of the proceeds from the spectrum they directly contribute to the auction.”

If these steps fail to free up adequate spectrum, the report recommends the commission have a backup strategy in place. In that scenario, the agency should “consider other approaches” including:

• transitioning to a distributed transmission system/single-frequency network approach to OTA broadcasting;
• auction “overlay licenses” with secondary rights in broadcast TV bands; and
• requiring more extensive channel sharing.

The report also makes several other recommendations. With Congressional authorization, the FCC should consider charging commercial full-power broadcasters for the spectrum they use. Additionally, it recommends setting a deadline of the end of 2015 or after the completion of the reallocation of broadcast TV bands is done to complete the digital transition of LPTV stations. The report also says resolving VHF DTV reception issues is important to the spectrum reallocation issue and suggests setting up a trust fund for public media.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.