By a 5-0 vote, the commission sets in motion a three-part rulemaking looking to auction some TV spectrum, set up the sharing of a single 6 MHz channel by two or more stations and increase power for VHF stations, thereby freeing up UHF space for wireless broadband.
FCC Begins TV Spectrum Revamp
Convinced that more spectrum is needed to fuel the rapid growth of wireless broadband services, the FCC this morning launched a proceeding that could lead to the shift of more than a third of broadcast TV spectrum to wireless broadband use.
The rulemaking, adopted by a 5-0 vote at an open FCC meeting, proposes rules changes designed to help the FCC recover up to 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum so that it could be auctioned to wireless broadband users.
First floated last March as part of the FCC comprehensive National Broadband plan, the recovery plan calls for freeing up spectrum by repacking the broadcast spectrum — that is, by trimming the power and coverage of stations — and by encouraging stations to give up or share channels by entitling them to a share of auction proceeds.
The rulemaking does not propose a specific repacking scheme. Whether to allow the so-called incentive auctions is the prerogative of Congress.
Just prior to casting his vote, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski repeated his belief that finding more spectrum for broadband was critical. “If we don’t act to update our spectrum policies for the 21st century, we are going to run into a wall — a spectrum crunch — that will stifle American innovation and economic growth and cost us the opportunity to lead the world in mobile communications.”
Genachowski said broadcasting is currently not using its spectrum efficiently. Some stations are “seizing the opportunities” afforded by digital transmission to offer multicast channels and mobile services, but others are not.
“We might think of the steady stream of broadcast TV transmissions as trains with a fixed number of box cars delivering digital content. But many of the box cars now are empty,” he said.
“The spectrum is too valuable and our spectrum needs too great for it to be used inefficiently in this manner, especially given that less than 10% of Americans receive broadcast television only through over-the-air spectrum signals,’’ Genachowski added.
Alan Stilwell, the FCC staffer who presented the rulemaking at the meeting, said it has three parts.
First, he said, it would set the stage for eventual auctioning of some broadcast spectrum by allowing fixed and land-mobile services in the TV band as co-primary users entitled to the same interference protection as broadcasters.
Second, he said, it proposes “a framework of rules” for encouraging two or more stations to share a single 6 MHz TV channel. “Under this framework, stations … would retain their rights to mandatory carriage on cable and DBS systems.
“The proposed sharing rules would neither increase nor decrease the carriage rights of any broadcaster on any type of multichannel distribution system,” he said.
Third, the proceeding would attempt to increase the utility of the VHF band for broadcasting, he said. “The goal is to resolve digital broadcast reception problems in the VHF band by increasing the maximum power by as much as 6 db and impose performance standards for VHF receive antennas.”
Stilwell said that the FCC is not trying to undermine broadcasting in the rulemaking. In fact, he said, the proceeding “takes an approach that will help preserve that service as a healthy, viable medium.”
Genachowski also said that it was not the FCC’s intention to marginalize broadcasting, noting that even if 120 MHz were taken from broadcasting, 300 MHz would still be left.
Genachowski said the rulemaking was reminiscent of the FCC’s action more than 20 years ago when it began the transition of broadcasting from analog to digital.
“We know it won’t be easy to free up spectrum for mobile broadband from the existing TV band. But it is essential that we move rapidly. We don’t have anywhere close to 20 years this time. We can’t afford to fall behind.”
Fellow Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps agreed with Genachowski that broadcasters have been underutilizing their digital spectrum.
“I am not interested in pushing broadcasters somewhere else or in discouraging their enhanced public interest stewardship of the airwaves. But the public interest in multicasting remains all too often a concept and not a reality.
“Had this spectrum been put to such positive use, I would have little interest in contemplating other uses of it.”
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the FCC’s third Democrat, said she ”strongly supports” the more efficient use of broadcast spectrum, especially where it is “underutilized” and when broadcasters are willing to give it up on a “voluntary basis.”
But, she added, she wants the FCC to remember that it also has a “significant obligation to protect the important public interest that over-the-air broadcast TV provides for our nation.”
She said the commission should “carefully study the impact that removing broadcast spectrum could have on all consumers in local communities.” Most important, she said, the FCC must ”pay close, careful attention to those who are the most vulnerable.”
FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican, voted for the rulemaking, but said he would “remain mindful of the significant public interest benefits that broadcasters deliver.’’
Any rules allowing for more flexible uses within the TV band “must leave incumbent broadcast licensees with viable opportunities to experiment with their own mix of wireless services including, but not limited to, traditional broadcasting,” he said.
McDowell said he has not made up his mind as to whether channel sharing is the best possible option for getting the most out of the TV band.
He expressed concerns about the viability of the VHF band and said he wants the FCC to examine the issue carefully before moving any broadcasters back into the band.
And he said he wants the FCC to look into the alternative of allowing broadcasters to lease spectrum for wireless broadband purposes. “Now is the time to dig into this concept seriously.”
Commissioner Meredith Baker suggested that if the FCC is considering reallocating TV spectrum, it should also considers lightening broadcasting’s regulatory load.
”If the TV bands are to shift towards a more flexible spectrum model it is only right to ask whether those use restrictions should also be revisited.”