The fight between the NAB and the FCC over spectrum auctions is ugly. The two groups should be working together for the common good — that is, enhancing broadcasting as a strong, free and universal service and, at the same time, freeing up some additional spectrum for wireless broadband. Let me offer a compromise, a new National Broadband/Broadcast Plan. The NAB and the FCC would persuade as many stations as possible to give up their channels with the promise of a big pay day. And then the FCC would use a portion of the freed up spectrum — let’s say about a third — to improve broadcasting by giving the remaining stations more room to breathe.
I don’t like this antagonism that flaring up between the NAB and FCC over incentive auctions and broadcast spectrum. It’s unbecoming. The NAB is accusing the FCC of withholding spectrum allotment models because they’ll put a lie to all the assurances the agency has given broadcasters. And the FCC is accusing the NAB of using scare tactics by spewing out twisted research that suggest that little old ladies with TVs and coat hanger antennas will be sacrificed at the altar of the evil and insatiable tech-lords of Silicon Valley.
Frankly, it’s ugly. It makes the FCC and NAB look like the Democrats and Republicans fighting over deficit reduction in Congress…. I’m sorry. That’s a little harsh. Let’s say it makes them look like a couple of hyenas tearing at a rotting wildebeest carcass.
So, what we need is compromise. The NAB and the FCC should be working together for the common good — that is, enhancing broadcasting as a strong, free and universal service and, at the same time, freeing up some additional spectrum for wireless broadband so that I can continue to listen to the Pirates games on my smart phone even when I’m hundreds of miles from Pittsburgh.
The FCC’s current proposal is to recover as much as 120 MHz of the TV broadcast spectrum by encouraging marginal TV stations to give up their channels. The inducement would be a share of the billions of dollars the FCC anticipates from the eventual auction of the spectrum.
It’s not a bad deal, especially for those stations with a barely perceptible pulse. In fact, among the few station trades we have seen this year are the purchase of some of these stations by spectrum speculators like computer billionaire Michael Dell.
The trouble comes because most broadcasters don’t want to sell. They see that the future is wireless and they want to be a part of it. And they don’t want to see their over-the-air service diminished in any way. It gives broadcasters their edge over cable and it carries their hopes for mobile DTV.
Diminution of broadcasting is a real danger. After the FCC recovers its spectrum, it would “repack” the remaining broadcasters into the VHF band and in the lower end of the UHF band. The FCC thinks it’s critical to offer auction bidders great swatches of spectrum uncluttered by any other users. And it’s probably right about that.
But the remaining broadcasters fear that the repacking will cause even more congestion in the broadcast band and make life for their signals more difficult. With more limited power, signals will not reach as far or they will be subject to more interference that will discourage over-the-air viewers, fixed and mobile.
In testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in July, NAB President Gordon Smith urged the committee to amend the language of the bill that would authorize the FCC to move ahead with its spectrum plan. Instead of saying the FCC must make “reasonable efforts” to preserve broadcasters’ current level of service, Smith said, the legislation should require the FCC to preserve service “to the maximum extent possible.”
That’s still not good enough. The measure should require the FCC to improve broadcast service to the maximum extent.
Is improvement even possible? Maybe so.
As I understand it, the quality of broadcasting service is a function of density — the number of stations packed into any given geographic area and the quantity of spectrum available. If you reduce the number of stations, you will be able to increase the separation among the remaining stations. They will be able to broadcast with more power without causing or receiving interference. They will be able to provide better service to more people.
According to an NAB analysis, if the FCC were to take 120 MHz of spectrum as it originally proposed, 210 full power TV stations would have to go dark or double up on one of the remaining stations. That’s sounds doable to me. That’s just 12% of the 1,735 full power stations.
It gets a little tricky in some of the major markets where the hit would be pretty heavy. Detroit would lose all its stations, presumably due to its proximity to the Canadian border. There is also the question of what to do about low-power stations. But let’s set aside those problems for the moment.
So here’s the new National Broadband/Broadcast Plan: Spectrum Peace In Our Time (NBBP).
The FCC convinces 210 stations to give up their channels for some of the auction lucre and, perhaps, must carry in perpetuity, just as if it were going to repack and clear 120 MHz — ch. 31 though ch. 51 — for auction.
But rather than doing that, the FCC takes only 84 MHz, chs. 38-51, and leaves 36 MHz, chs. 31-36, for broadcasting so that the remaining stations can spread out a little. Remember, reducing the number of stations per channel should allow station to boost power, mitigate interference and improve service.
Those of you who are good at arithmetic might figure there are 126 MHz between chs. 31 and 51, inclusive. There is not. That’s because ch. 37 is not a broadcast channel. It’s allocated to radio astronomy and medical telemetry. Under the new NBBP, you could leave that just where it is, to serve as a convenient guard band between the broadcast and broadband bands.
We shouldn’t get hung up on the specific numbers. The 120 MHz example above is just one scenario. We could target more spectrum or less.
Look, I’m no consulting RF engineer. But I consulted with a couple of smart ones and they don’t think this is totally nuts.
What it boils down to is this: The NAB and the FCC work together to persuade as many stations as possible to give up their channels as they can with the promise of a big pay day. And then the FCC uses a portion of the freed up spectrum — let’s say about a third as in the 120 MHz example — to improve broadcasting by giving the remaining stations more room to breathe.
As part of the deal, the FCC also has to make good on its promise to cover the cost of broadcasters moving to new channels during the repacking out of the auction proceeds. The agency should also expand the protected contours of stations against white space devices, which, to me, seem like Visigoths battering at walls of civilized wireless communications.
The NBBP is a real compromise. The FCC gets what it wants. TV broadcasting gets what it needs. They become allies on Capitol Hill in the push for the necessary legislation.
I can see the NBBP will not be without political problems. Some lawmakers might wonder why auction proceeds are going to improve broadcasting. My answer would be that it’s about time.
The history of AM, FM and TV is one of packing more and more stations in the available spectrum for the sake of diversity. The result has been to slowing degrade the services. Diversity is a good value, but not the only one.
Maintaining the status quo for TV broadcasting isn’t good enough. If the FCC is going to trigger another major disruption of the broadcast service, more severe, by all accounts, than the digital transition, TV stations that want to stay in the game deserve to come out of it stronger than when they went in. They’ve earn it with the local news and entertainment they provide day after day — free to anyone with a cheap TV, a place to plug it in and a coat hanger.