FCC considers TV spectrum for broadband use

The FCC is considering taking back some spectrum from television broadcasters and auctioning it off to wireless companies to increase the availability of mobile broadband services. It’s an idea that is gaining momentum among a number of industry organizations and key media executives.

A strong argument in favor of reclaiming some of the spectrum broadcasters were given for free is that broadband access is simply more useful to the average citizen than traditional TV. In addition, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has warned that the United States doesn't have enough spectrum for rapidly growing broadband spectrum for mobile users. The commission is looking for ways to remedy the shortage and has reportedly eyed the spectrum being used by broadcasters.

"The record is very clear that we're facing a looming spectrum gap," said Blair Levin, the FCC's national broadband chief, to the “Wall Street Journal.”

Although TV stations never paid for it in the first place, the FCC envisions paying broadcasters about $12 billion to buy the airwaves back and $9 billion to move homes watching OTA TV to digital or subscription services. These numbers are based on a new study conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Thus far, broadcasters have not appeared receptive to the idea. The "final" FCC plan is scheduled for release in February, although several court challenges are likely. In fact, broadcasters are already publicly challenging the FCC's ideas in the media.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said, "[The NAB] believes it is imperative that policy makers explore spectrum efficiency choices that don't limit consumer access to the full potential of digital broadcasting."

Levin said the commission is "looking at everything, including broadcasting airwaves" to solve the spectrum shortage. The current thinking at the FCC is not to take back all of the broadcasters' airwaves. Instead, the commission would take back a portion of the airwaves set aside for digital TV broadcasts and auction them off to wireless companies that want to offer more wireless Internet services.

Broadcasters, now pushing their own wireless standard, want mobile phones and other wireless devices to come equipped with receivers that would allow consumers to watch digital TV.

Special auctions for the reclaimed spectrum would net the FCC as much as $62 billion.

Meanwhile, as expected, the Republicans are coming out against the Democratic-controlled FCC’s network neutrality proposal. Last week, the Republican FCC commissioner Robert McDowell opposed network neutrality for wireless networks.

Speaking at an event for the Mercatus Center & The Progress & Freedom Foundation, McDowell cautioned that the commission should not allow the understandable uncertainty about new technology to “lure us into unwarranted regulation, which may be difficult or impossible to reverse.”

McDowell’s speech was at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of an article by economist Ronald Coase, who argued for a free market. He pointed out that Coase had written “lawyers and economists should not be so overwhelmed by the emergence of new technologies as to change the existing legal and economic system without first making quite certain that this is required.”

McDowell said Coase’s writings 50 years ago about the problems with public interest regulation “remain[s] equally applicable for today’s media landscape and help us understand why it would be such a serious mistake to reinstitute this misguided doctrine, which the FCC wisely took off the books in 1987.”