MacBride Rallies IEEE Members

Broadcast spectrum is under assault, Marsha MacBride told a roomful of engineers at the 55th Annual IEEE Broadcast Symposium, urging them to get off their duffs and lobby lawmakers.

"The demand for 'beachfront' broadcast spectrum is huge," said MacBride, executive vice president of legal and regulatory affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters, and former chief of staff for ex-FCC Chairman Michael Powell. "Broadband is in; broadcast is out."

She noted the Bush Administration call for universal broadband in the nation by 2007, up from a mere 38 million "connections" today. She said companies going after the spectrum were "players with a lot of swat in Washington," and that the effort to wrench spectrum away from television began years ago. Then, in 2002 the FCC Spectrum Policy Task Force "determined there was plenty of spectrum, it was just inefficiently used," and the current airwave-grab ensued.

MacBride cited three major forces threatening the broadcast space--unlicensed devices, broadband-over-powerline (BPL) and ultrawideband (UWB). With the current obsession for unlicensed devices, the risk of broadcast interference is a low priority in the regulatory arena, she said. Interference tests assume a 30-foot separation--more than one can find in a lot of New York City apartments--between an unlicensed device and a TV receiver. She also said that while the FCC recognized that BPL would cause interference, it only approved protection for spectrum used by the federal government.

She very briefly mentioned the drive to free up spectrum for first responders, an effort for which Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is bearing the colors. McCain's efforts last year to establish an analog sunset date were dismantled in the final hours of the Congressional session--his last as chairman of the Commerce Committee. The current chairman, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is busy crafting DTV legislation of his own, but not fast enough to satisfy the chagrined McCain, who is scheduled to appear at a D.C. think tank gathering Oct. 18 to once again blame broadcasters for the dismal state of emergency communications.

That event, sponsored by the New America Foundation, will also feature speakers from Cisco Systems, the 9/11 Commission and municipal safety organizations, but not broadcasters. According to the NAF invite, the panelists will "describe the benefits of mobile, high-speed public safety data networks that will require access to the sort of high-penetration airwaves that currently lie fallow as unassigned TV channels and 'guard bands' in every community nationwide." It said senators are considering whether Channels 2 through 51 ought to be opened for unlicensed devices, although even the FCC hasn't written off on that yet.

MacBride told those gathered at the IEEE Symposium in Washington that "the role of the engineer is critical" in DTV deadline discussions. "Much of this falls in your lap," she said, urging the group to communicate with lawmakers. "Engineering is being debated today at the FCC like policy."