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In spectrum reclamation proposal, broadcasters want to know: How much?

With the Obama administration looking for ways to make wireless broadband (Internet) access as ubiquitous as television, the focus has shifted to reclaiming some of the digital spectrum loaned to broadcasters. The FCC has begun a series of discussions to determine the value of the spectrum and compensation to station license owners, if such a reclamation were to occur, and how much spectrum would be needed to develop a nationwide broadband service.

The commission said it is reviewing various spectrum bands to understand if all or a portion of the spectrum within these bands could be repurposed for wireless broadband services. After a review of various responses to the Spectrum for Broadband Public Notice issued in September, the FCC is now looking for more specific data on the use of spectrum currently licensed to broadcast television stations.

The issue is so contentious that the parties, who met at a congressional seminar hosted by the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, D.C., last week can't even agree on whether a shortage even exists. While industry executives like CEA president Gary Shapiro have declared the shortage of spectrum a “national crisis,” others, like John Hane, a broadcast industry lawyer with Pillsbury, Winthrop Shaw Pittman, said at the panel discussion that “nobody has provided any facts that show that there is a looming spectrum crisis.”

As part of the president’s Recovery Act, the FCC, beginning in July of this year, has been tasked by Congress with establishing a long-term plan for broadband access in America. Part of the initiative is to put the pieces in place to for both fixed and mobile use, recognizing that consumers are increasingly using portable devices to surf the Web.

“The demand for spectrum [in the United States] in already big, but is about to explode,” said Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC’s Omnibus Broadband Initiative.

He said the commission wants to avert a future “crisis,” citing a more than 600 percent increase in the use of “smart” cell phones in the United States in the last four years. (He called it the “iPhone effect.”) Mobile data usage is also growing at a rate of about 129 percent per year, with 17PB per month accessed this year alone. This is projected to be 397PB a month in 2013.

Levin said there is only about 50MHz of spectrum available for such use and a mere 10MHz that is ideally suited to mobile broadband applications. Large contiguous blocks of spectrum are also needed to create a national, uninterrupted network that would be useful across the country. The UHF spectrum provides better propagation performance than VHF channels.

“The value of the spectrum itself is greater than the value created for broadcasters in the use of that spectrum,” Levin said. “If this were any other property, someone would come in and pull together a bunch of real estate, repackage it, and then it would go to a higher and better use.”

Levin said he has been approached by broadcasters inquiring about whether they could use their allotted 6MHz for purposes other than traditional television transmission. The current law allows stations to lease their spectrum for other uses, and they get to keep 95 percent of the proceeds (with the remainder going to the U.S. Treasury).

“It’s certainly true that not all broadcasters are using the full 6MHz of spectrum they were given, and it’s not clear that every broadcaster in every market needs that 19.4Mb/s bit stream. It is a bit of a mystery to me that we can't explore the idea that some broadcasters might wish to sell their spectrum in a way that benefits them and the country.”

David Donovan, president of the Association of Maximum Television (MSTV), was quick to disagree about how the spectrum is being used and how it would be used for mobile video in the near future. At the seminar, he repeatedly asked Levin exactly how much spectrum the FCC was looking to acquire for its national broadband plan. At this stage in the discussion, Levin could not provide an answer, although 100MHz to 150MHz of spectrum has been unofficially proposed.

Donavan said broadcasters fear an “eminent domain” situation, whereby the government would take spectrum from stations that “would profoundly change the way some stations do business.” He added that HDTV might be relegated to a premium pay service, with limited availability to the general public because stations would have to reallocate their DTV bit streams to support a commercial business model as well as a national broadband service.

From a technical perspective, the challenges of either reducing individual stations’ bandwidth or “repacking” stations while allowing them to retain 6MHz of spectrum could prove more than problematic — taking into account signal interference and market coverage issues. Collectively, broadcasters now use about 294MHz of spectrum for digital television (including both standard- and high-definition channels).

“We believe that we are part of the solution, particularly as it applies to wireless use,” Donavan said. “The business value proposition of over-the-air television far exceeds what would be a one-time snapshot value. We want to work with the Broadband Task Force. In fact, we have for years believed that you can use television spectrum, especially in rural areas for the provision of an over-the air wireless broadband service.”

He added that providing broadband to areas that need it most could be accomplished on a region-by-region basis. “To create a national clearing approach forces the government at some point to force some broadcasters off the air or dramatically change their facilities.”

One proposal for reclaiming spectrum includes the use of SD “subchannels” now used by some broadcasters for ancillary weather, sports and entertainment programming. Paul Gallant, a financial analyst with Concept Capital, said such multicasting of subchannels has not achieved the windfall it was predicted to provide stations when broadcasters were given the digital spectrum. As such, he surmised that stations could part with some of their spectrum without a negative effect.

At the Progress and Freedom Foundation, Kostas Liopiros, a principal at tech consultancy firm Sun Fire Group, said the UHF spectrum is being looked at for its ability to carry wireless signals through walls and other rural terrain hurdles. Contiguous blocks of spectrum are also preferred. He called the repacking of spectrum “a very messy and laborious process,” and said the ATSC standard was designed to carry four to six SD channels, so there is room for flexibility.

Still, the question remains how much spectrum the government will require for its ambitious broadband plan.

“We’re trying to find out specifically what the Broadband Task Force is contemplating in terms of taking back spectrum,” MSTV’s Donovan said. “[We need to know] how much? Because that determines the policies that one follows. To date, that has been a very nebulous number.”

Another interesting note: In trying to determine the value of the spectrum, attorney Hane said that Verizon Wireless alone controls more spectrum than all the broadcasters combined in any given market, yet is not bound by any FCC regulations the way that broadcasters are.