But broadcasters are still hoping they can derail or water down legislation that would allow unlicensed wireless devices to operate in broadcast spectrum.
The broadcasting news from Washington is bad and could get worse.
Yesterday, broadcasters took a major congressional hit when the House unanimously passed a Senate indecency bill that would drastically increase fines for TV stations to $325,000 per violation. Presidential approval is a virtual certainty.
At almost the same time, the two House Republicans who control all broadcasting legislation came out against multicast must-carry rights for broadcasters and warned the FCC to back off from any plans to adopt must-carry rules. Earlier in the day, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) also told the FCC not to mess with must carry.
Now it looks like the industry might get clobbered again. Stevens’s committee is likely to approve a pending telecom reform bill with provisions that would permit unlicensed wireless devices in so-called “white spaces” between TV channels.
The white space provisions are a minor part of the legislation. Committee staff is primarily focused on rewriting the bill’s most controversial elements dealing with video franchise reform and net neutrality.
Broadcasters led by the Association for Maximum Service Television have been vigorously opposing the white space provisions, saying that unlicensed devices operating in the broadcast spectrum would cause serious interference to TV signals.
“It is absolutely critical that existing licensees be protected,” says MSTV President David Donovan.
There is still some hope for broadcasters. Stevens is an industry ally and he might budge a little on the issue, incorporating some of MSTV’s revisions into the bill. As of this writing, we are waiting to see what the latest draft of the bill looks like.
MSTV has a long list of revisions. The legislation now requires the FCC to issue rules permitting white space devices within 270 days of enactment. MSTV doesn’t like that timetable and argues that the FCC should be able to make the final determination as to when the devices are permitted.
MSTV would also strengthen the FCC certification process of white space devices and mandatory field testing to ensure there is no interference. Laboratory tests alone won’t cut it, says MSTV.
Perhaps most important, Donovan says, “it is imperative that these devices be prohibited from operating on the first adjacent channel to any full-powered TV station, Class A station, LPTV station or television translator.”
Ideally, broadcasters would like Congress to delay any action on this matter until the DTV transition is completed in 2009.
But waiting that long doesn’t hold much appeal to Stevens or any of the other committee members such as George Allen (R-Va.), John Sununu (R-N.H.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) who want the white spaces provisions adopted.
The high-tech companies behind the measure—Microsoft, Intel, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, among others—have successfully convinced the senators that permitting these unlicensed devices will spur the development and delivery of high-speed broadband services in underserved rural areas.
There are some familiar faces leading the charge for Microsoft and Intel. Helping Microsoft make the case is Ed Thomas, the FCC’s former chief engineer under Michael Powell. Peter Pitsch, Intel’s director of communications policy, is another key player in the debate. Pitsch was chief of staff to former FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick.
Even if Stevens decides to ignore broadcasters concerns and move forward, TV stations haven’t completely lost the battle.
Broadcasters may be able to count on House members to throw out or water down the proposal.
Right now, the House telecom reform bill doesn’t even deal with the white spaces issue nor does it contain another onerous Senate provision that would permit cable systems to down convert broadcasters DTV signals.
So if it comes down to a House-Senate conference on the legislation, those broadcast-unfriendly provisions could be left out or altered.
Or even better, House members might want to explore the possibility of auctioning off the white space spectrum rather than give it away. Microsoft and Intel might find that idea less appealing.
Of course, time is always on the side of those who oppose legislation as the broadcasters do in this case. With fewer and fewer days left on the legislative calendar, Congress could adjourn before a telecom reform bill ever gets to a House-Senate conference.