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Views Aired at CES About Off-Air Television's Future

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, emphasized the need to find more spectrum for wireless broadband to support all the nifty devices on display at CES. Much of that spectrum would come from existing TV channels.

CEA President Gary Shapiro said in his keynote address that television broadcasters were "squatting now on our broadband future." Chairman Genachowski's comments weren't as harsh.

"In the case of TV broadcasters, under our plan, a broadcaster could choose to contribute the 6 MHz channel it is using, or continue to broadcast by sharing a channel with one or more stations, or simply not participate and continue to broadcast as they do today," he said.

Shapiro offered his thoughts about the television broadcast industry.

"Television broadcasters are unhappy," he said. "…they have borrowed spectrum from the government and have seen their public audience shrink from 100 percent of Americans to under 10 percent. They are squatting on our broadband future. This spectrum needs to be repurposed and reused."

Genachowski mentioned Shapiro's new book The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream (opens in new tab), at the start of his speech.

In the book, Shapiro says that broadcasting is an "incredibly inefficient" use of valuable spectrum. He compared the FCC's broadcast spectrum policy to granting horse and buggy makers exclusive use of the roads after the invention of the car.

As expected, the National Association of Broadcasters disagreed. Its spokesman, Dennis Wharton, had his own comments.

"Perhaps while he was writing his book, Gary missed the fact that broadcasters just gave back over a quarter of our airwaves after the DTV transition," Wharton said. "He may have also missed the pay TV cord-cutting phenomenon and the fact that TV antenna sales are soaring. Broadcasting, because it is a 'one-to-many' transmission service, is a far more efficient user of spectrum than the 'one-to-one' spectrum-hogging cellphone network."

The process of moving spectrum from free off-air TV to commercial wireless broadband services has just started. Congress needs to approve the "incentive auctions" the FCC would use to encourage broadcasters to voluntarily return spectrum and the commission needs to adopt rules for the auction and determine how the broadcast spectrum will be repacked.

Genachowski said that "Auctions of contiguous spectrum would unlock value and billions of dollars." [Emphasis added].

"Contiguous" implies that many TV stations would have to move to lower UHF slots, or even VHF channels, if they want to say on the air, as most of the existing UHF TV channels would need to disappear to meet the National Broadband Plan's goal of taking 120 MHz from broadcasting. UHF is the only TV band with that much contiguous spectrum.

Given the relatively low value (per market/per channel) assigned to the spectrum AT&T recently acquired from Qualcomm, could we see a scenario where broadcasters volunteer to give up the spectrum, then use the money they receive plus whatever extra amount is needed to "buy-back" the spectrum?

Under such a scenario, for that extra amount of money the broadcasters would no longer have to deal with all the public interest requirements the FCC has placed on TV broadcasting and would be free to use the most efficient modulation method possible (including multicarrier modulation like OFDM) to reach fixed, portable and mobile devices. Another benefit would be no worries about support for existing TV sets.

Under this scenario, TV broadcasting really wouldn't be killed off, and could advance without the regulatory constraints that it's been under for more than half a century.

Of course, depending on the business model, it may no longer be free.

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.