Skip to main content

National Broadband Plan Recommends 20 Channel Cut

For the year-end RF Report, I'll look back at some of the major issues that I covered in 2010, and where they might lead in the future.

After Congress and the FCC delayed the analog shutdown by four months to give off-air TV viewers more time make the switch to digital, and after broadcasters (and the FCC) launched a major campaign to educate viewers about the change), who would have thought that the FCC would release a National Broadband Plan that recommending removal of some 20 of the 37 TV channels? Such a move would require many stations to share channels, and/or to move to VHF channels (where viewers continue to have trouble receiving signals), or to even shut down broadcasting operations entirely. As the engineers participating in the FCC's Broadcast Engineering Forum demonstrated, the Plan would not leave enough channels for all TV stations to remain on-the-air in some markets, even if every station shared its channel with another broadcaster and gave up HDTV or Mobile DTV.

Throughout the process National Broadband Plan proponents have been careful to say that broadcasters would voluntarily opt to return their spectrum. If Congress approves the Plan, these broadcasters could share in the revenue resulting from the auction of their spectrum.

Many questions still remain to be answered in 2011.

Will broadcasters that do not choose to return their spectrum, or share another broadcaster's spectrum, be forced to move to a VHF channel that won't work for indoor reception or with Mobile DTV?

Will they have to pay high spectrum fees to retain their channel?

The FCC is looking for a solution to the VHF reception problem, but has admitted that it's too late to reduce interference from electrical and electronic devices. The laws of physics require larger antennas to efficiently receive longer wavelengths. Even a foot-long antenna is too big for a cell phone or smart phone.

As I reported last week, the recently announced sale of Qualcomm's FLO TV nationwide spectrum to AT&T for $1.93 billion dollars indicates that the average value per 6 MHz channel per market is less than $18 million.

What will happen to the price if more channels become available and are located further away from the prime 700 MHz spectrum?

As Deborah McAdams wrote her article Evidence to the Contrary in the Nov. 17 TV Technology TV Business section, there's a lot of evidence that the FCC's numbers for growth in mobile data demand are wildly inflated. There may be more value to using the spectrum for multicast, which could be defined as broadcasting via the Internet. ATSC Mobile DTV--by the way--is IP based and could just as well be called "wireless broadband multicast". Qualcomm is working on LTE multicast technology, and Verizon has said broadcasting/multicast is important in reducing the demands that live video places on IP networks. In 2020 broadcasters who've given up their spectrum could find themselves negotiating with wireless carriers for carriage and bandwidth on that same spectrum.

The FCC has already taken the first step in reallocating TV spectrum. It issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making that would give fixed and mobile operations co-primary status in all TV bands, and also establish rules for two or more stations sharing the same 6 MHz TV channel. The assumption has been that the FCC would reclaim as much spectrum as possible from TV broadcasters (up to 120 MHz) and then "repack" the remaining TV broadcast services into a much smaller number of channels. This, as I pointed out, would be much more complicated than I believe the plan's proponents have contemplated. It will take a lot of time and money for stations to construct parallel DTV transmission facilities on a new channel. If tower space is limited, it may be necessary to build a reduced coverage interim facility for their new channel, later shut down the old channel, and then remove and replace or modify the old equipment for operation on the new channel. Most antennas and filters work on only one channel. Most transmission lines only work on certain channels. A move from UHF to VHF would require replacement of all high-power components and, in many cases, more tower space.

Next year we should see how the FCC actually plans to take back broadcast spectrum.

How voluntary will it really be?

The loss of channels 52-69 after the analog shutdown left some stations in densely populated areas with limited coverage or, in the case of WPVI-TV in Philadelphia, a low-band VHF channel adjacent to the FM broadcast band.

On what channel will your favorite station end up?

The FCC has an Allotment Optimization Model that will likely be used to create a DTV table of allotments. The big question will be how much TV broadcast coverage and diversity the FCC is willing to sacrifice to provide more spectrum to wireless carriers?

The decisions made in 2011 could determine whether or not we still have a viable free off-air TV broadcast service in 2020.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.