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TV, wireless industries square off in D.C. over spectrum policy – Part 1

Can the mobile phone/wireless broadband industry and TV broadcasters reach an agreement on the future allocation of spectrum that each finds satisfying?

If a debate June 11 at the Broadband Policy Summit VI in Washington, D.C., between Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, the wireless industry's trade group, and David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, is any indication, it's difficult to see how.

The debate — which at times was complex, amusing and populated with mild digs and subtle putdowns — boiled down to a fundamental disagreement over what constitutes efficient use of spectrum, particularly when it comes to delivering video. Is the traditional high-power, one-to-many transmission of broadcast television, which requires leaving channels unused to protect against co- and adjacent-channel interference, spectrally efficient? Or is a one-to-one cell phone transmission architecture more efficient?

Set against the backdrop of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which calls for full-power broadcasters to relinquish 120MHz of TV spectrum voluntarily in exchange for a share of the proceeds of an auction of that spectrum, the debate, entitled "Should Broadcast Spectrum Be Converted to Wireless Broadband Use?" offered a forum to air both sides.

Saying there has been "a staggering increase in spectrum usage," not just in the United States but worldwide, Guttman-McCabe opened the debate acknowledging the effort of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to tackle the need to get "more spectrum in the pipeline" in the commission's recently released plan.

"We [the United States] are woefully behind the focus of the countries that we like to compare ourselves to," he said. He said Japan has about 500MHz set aside for wireless use; Germany has 400MHz; and India has 300MHz. "There has to be spectrum to market in the next couple of years, and it has to be a process whereby we're seeing spectrum coming to market every couple of years for the next 10 years," Guttman-McCabe said.

"It's wonderful to be the desire of Chris' and CTIA's spectrum lust," Donovan said wryly.

Donovan, who occasionally glanced at his Samsung mobile phone equipped with a mobile DTV receiver to watch mobile DTV transmitted by Washington, D.C., area broadcasters participating in an ongoing trial of the technology, said mobile DTV offers the wireless industry a solution to meet "the bulk of demand" for wireless video. Raising his hand to display a tiny receiver/demodulator chip from LG Electronics, Donovan said, "I think the issue really boils down to this."

"Instead of Chris and I fighting back and forth, why don't we sit down, voluntarily work out some business arrangements where you can incorporate this chip into your members' phones, which will take a lot of pressure off and resolve this problem?" Donovan said. "We are in fact part of the wireless broadband architecture. You are seeing it right here in this room."

Guttman-McCabe rejected Donovan's invitation, saying wireless subscribers wished to do more than watch linear TV. "I think there is a place for consumers to time shift, to not have to watch 12 minutes of commercials in order to get 18 minutes of programming," he said. "I also think consumers should have access to Hulu and YouTube and be able to upload things and download."

Incorporating the mobile DTV receiver into mobile phones and other devices does not preclude consumers from those things, Donovan said. It simply takes advantage of the broadcast architecture to offload a large portion of video demand to a more spectrum-efficient approach, he said.

However, Guttman-McCabe questioned how broadcasting could be characterized as efficient when so many channels allocated for DTV go unused. Reading from prepared notes, Guttman-McCabe began reciting the seemingly small number of stations that occupy individual UHF channels.

Donovan interrupted him, saying, "When you do technology, engineering is important." Pointing to the example of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, the MSTV president explained how channel assignments were painstakingly made to protect against co- and adjacent-channel interference within individual TV markets and geographically abutting markets.

Editor's note: Part 2 of this story will appear in the 6/17 edition of the "RF Update" enewsletter. A link will be added when it is published."

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.