A Plan For Spectrum Peace In Our Time

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.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be reached at 973-701-1067 or mailto:[email protected]. You can read his other columns here.



Comments (16)

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Deanna Kennedy says:

August 19, 2011 at 3:35 pm

The current adminstration has no love for broadcasters. It’s as simple as that.

Meagan Zickuhr says:

August 19, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Harry….. what actually is the DEAL you say is not bad for ‘stations with a barely perceptible pulse’? Have you seen it, because no broadcaster has and that is why we are concerned! And you cannot leave out Canadian and Mexican border issues nor LPTV because they are all BROADCASTERS too! So it is not really as simple as you would like for it to be. And would you share a channel with a competitor if you owned a FP station Harry? Will you share you ad dollars with another publisher of media issues?

April Davis says:

August 19, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Well… how about this. We should protect the “public interest” value in the spectrum. Really, the dollar value of the signal is an incomplete measure of its social worth. How about requiring new operators on channels that were once broadcast maintain one free over the air channel, comply with Kid Vid and public issues rules, and keep a public file? Really, Harry, the tech stuff might be worked out. There were two 6 MHz channels for every station pre transition. That requires some pretty snazzy computer signal propagation software. But no big deal. I will sit back and watch the comments come in…

Julie Caracciola says:

August 19, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Get serious, Harry. Although you mean well, it is untenable to even suggest that broadcasters can change their just-completed DTV facilities and “move down” to another channel. Do you have any idea what a DTV mask filter costs? Or what it involves to take down a full power antenna and replace it? Do you understand the incredible cost for this proposal and that not even the government can afford it? The revenue from some auction would not even pay for the transmission-line alterations, labor and time for a broadcaster to switch to a VHF channel. To even seriously contemplate such a scenario demonstrates what happens when “administrators” start “thinking”.
The entire broadband initiative is a load of crap. There is absolutely no engineering reason to consolidate the UHF spectrum into a “contiguous” space when intelligent digital receivers couldn’t care less where they tune to discover valid signals. Didn’t you notice how the linear tuner on your TV set has vanished? It’s been replaced with an intelligent digital tuner that figures out on its own where to find a particular broadcast station. You can’t even tune in between channels anymore if you wanted to. In fact, consumer TVs can’t even tune to a user-input frequency.
Just as with Wi-fi services that now straddle RF spectrum and work happily and transparently with the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz signals at any hotspot, any broadband service proposed for the UHF spectrum can likewise adapt accordingly and use broadband signals wherever they are found – including those which may be interleaved between existing television signals in any market. There is no valid reason why TV broadcasters need to be excluded from offering broadband services on their assigned channel. A national system based on interspersed digital signals and intelligent receivers is fundamentally more robust. It allows for future expansion with a dynamically-allocated live and ongoing growth to the available services and to the individual providers in every market. The expansion of the internet is both successful and robust due the myriad of service providers which come and go every day. Why shouldn’t future wireless services benefit from this obvious lesson?
The only “true” reason for any proposed consolidation of the UHF spectrum is money. Businesses such as Google and others are entirely dependent on “last mile” provides to deliver their service and keep the income flowing. Consider Google without a Comcast. Imagine even a slight adjustment to which internet service gets bandwidth “priority”. Now you see the true issue.
The future for broadband is clearly wireless. For those businesses that would collapse overnight without a means to reach customers directly, it is crucial for them to develop an independently-owned bypass to the current gatekeepers.
If you continue to talk about the broadband “problem” as if there were a problem, you only exasperate the issue. Even worse, you fall into reinforcing the fallacy that those entities who desperately need a wireless means to support their future growth have worked to fabricate.
There is no problem to solve here. Just authorize broadcasters to offer the advanced digital services that they can already provide. Authorize use of a multiplicity of signal encoding standards, including the very ones that the spectrum buyers fully intend to deploy. Recognize that high power stations already are optimized to serve the “right” markets and that they already have the resources to do so. Recognize the inherent and natural asymmetry of data flow, and realize that broadcasters can provide the high data rate pathway that distributed (cellular) services cannot. And finally, recognize that those distributed service providers and their infrastructure can handle both the present and future data upload traffic needed to support wide scale broadband access by the public. Enough said.

Teri Green says:

August 19, 2011 at 5:00 pm

DTV is old technology, it’s outdated and we need another update. First step, design a new system where upgrades come from firmware, so we won’t have to do another digital change. Yes, we need one. MPEG2 ain’t cutting it.

Second make ALL OTA standard def. If people want high def, let them pay for it via cable or dish or FIOS or whatever.

Without the HDTV which is a bandwidth hog, SDTV will fit just fine and free up a lot of space. Don’t like SDTV then pay for the upgrade. If you don’t like flying in back you UPGRADE to first class and you pay. HDTV is first class television and there should be a cost to it. Let the consumer bear that. Then the spectrum will be free.

Yes, we’ll have another digital changeover, so what, we’ll have one eventually, let’s get it over with now. But let’s make sure that any further upgrades are handled with firmware, or simply don’t sell receivers with tuners, so in future, consumers just need to buy a new tuner.

    Peter Grewar says:

    August 19, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    The only good idea in your post is that receivers should be able to handle upgrades with firmware, since this would allow future tweaks to our technical standards without inconveniencing viewers at home. That said, your idea to limit broadcast TV to standard definition is one that I strongly disagree with — the promise that was made to both viewers and broadcasters is that the digital transition would allow both HDTV and multicasting over the airwaves, and there are many of us who enjoy and appreciate both services. I see no justifiable reason why we should get kicked to the curb so that some yuppie can watch Youtube videos on his iPhone. And I certainly don’t see that as being a somehow more worthy use of the spectrum than OTA HDTV.

    mike tomasino says:

    August 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    Eric, your posts aren’t in the least bit helpful. Please stop making them. You don’t like DTV because you haven’t gotten it to work in your very limited situation. Why should we kill it off for everyone because you can’t get it to work? Why do you feel led to post these totally selfish post? I just don’t get your psychosis. Maybe in your situtation you should pay for cable. Please don’t advacated forcing the same choice on me. Have you tried any of the reception suggestions I’ve made in past posts? paper clip? Thumb tack?

Dave Chumley says:

August 19, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Spectrum peace will not come until the DTV standard is modified for robust reception indoors and in mobiles over a wide area, not just for 50% of rooftop antennas and mobiles in very strong signal area. And robust reception means 99% of the time at 75% of the locations. All that and more is doable with multicarrier modulation. The ATSC standard will NEVER make it because it has FUNDAMETAL problems in its design that makes it impossible to provide the needed service.

    Julie Caracciola says:

    August 20, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    You can be certain that any proposed use of the UHF spectrum by an auction buyer will employ multi-carrier modulation, whether it be a proprietary system or one conforming to an existing standard. TV broadcasters are disadvantaged by being forced to support legacy systems to satisfy their public interest obligation to serve the “free” OTA market. The government has already agreed to accept an ongoing fee from broadcasters who elect to use some part of their spectrum to earn money from a “closed” subscription service which is not free to the public. So the issue has been solved. A signal which is encrypted, whether it be encrypted through use of a non-standard emission or through use of a standard ATSC emission, is still unavailable to the public. Thus an ongoing fee must annually be paid into the Treasury by the proponent. The concept of offering “for pay” digital services is already well-established and legal for any TV broadcaster. The percentage owed by the broadcaster has already been established as a matter of law. The broadcaster’s right to offer such services has likewise been established. The Rules provide for broadcasting using a non-standard emission and specify the required tests to demonstrate that such non-standard emissions do not exceed the average power of the existing ATSC standard at any frequency within the assigned channel, and that the proposed emission does not exceed the interference level of the existing ATSC standard. Any form of radio emission is permitted by the Rules as long as a showing accompanies the application to provide such a so-called Subscription TV (STV) service on the assigned channel. The STV rules are not limited to analog modulation schemes, although these have traditionally been the only ones proposed by the few broadcasters who attempted to make a business out of STV years ago. A broadcaster’s public interest minimums can still be met by switching back to the conventional ATSC standard during the hours needed to meet community needs. As long as the prescribed ongoing fee is paid into the public Treasury for any ancillary (non-broadcast) use of the spectrum, all is well, and such commercial use falls well within existing Rules. So this leaves only the situation where a broadcaster wishes to provide an encrypted service 100% of the time. Under existing law, this is not permitted for full power or Class-A TV stations, although LPTVs can offer this service right now. All of the above notwithstanding, there is a clear and compelling public interest issue to protect the American “free TV” system in every market. Setting minimum standards to preserve such a robust OTA service is a fundamental obligation of the Commission in its mission to serve the public. Similar standards are used today to limit duopolies and excessive common ownership of TV and radio stations. The relatively minor matter of establishing what constitutes “enough” free TV in a market can be solved. Several channels can then be authorized for 100% encrypted (non-broadcast) operation. Of course such stations must be permitted to employ whatever form of “encryption” that’s needed to protect their business interests and support their intended service. It must be up to the broadcaster to choose their modulation scheme, whether this be a legacy ATSC variant such as mobile DTV, or a form of ODM. This engineering decision extends to specifying the spatial polarization of the radio emission, the extent of robustness needed at 1 m AGL, etc. The entire broadband initiative is first about grasping the legal concept that the full power television industry is a multibillion dollar commercial business with an intrinsic right under American law to grow that business and to protect it against obsolescence. It’s a basic right to be able to preserve one’s competitiveness without unnecessary governmental interference. Government agencies exist to foster the growth and success of the commercial sectors they oversee. They possess no right to saddle selected businesses with regulations having no clear public interest benefit.

Ellen Samrock says:

August 19, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Harry, your idea is a non-starter. Let’s not forget that the TV band was already repacked in the DTV transition and broadcasters returned 108 MHz of spectrum to the government. DTV, using current technology, cannot be repacked anymore without causing significant damage to the service. Since broadband providers at present have more than enough of spectrum to work with, now is the time for the FCC to begin focusing on implementing ATSC 2.0 (or maybe 3.0 when it is finalized) and how this standard can allow broadcasters to offer the same services with less spectrum. The Commission is jumping the gun trying to squeeze out another 120 MHz right now. It’s a problem that needs to be carefully and methodically worked through. The question is not, ‘how can we force broadcasters off the air to free up more spectrum’, but, how can we preserve broadcast television, which would include all incumbent stations (and this means LPTV too) offering full coverage, HDTV, 3-D and Mobile DTV while freeing spectrum. It means that the FCC would have to develop a long-range, possibly 10-year strategy to accomplish such a move. But this is how I see any peace being brokered between broadcasters and broadband providers, not what Harry is suggesting. The thing I like most about my plan is that by the time it’s implemented, Genachowski (Reed Hundt’s [email protected]#%&rd son) won’t be at the FCC to take credit for it.

    Peter Grewar says:

    August 19, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Well said. The current allotment of channels 2 through 51 to digital TV is the compromise — broadcast TV previously had 18 more channels, and at one time it had 32 more channels (I have an old TV whose tuner goes all the way up to channel 83).

Grace PARK says:

August 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

Thanks for his, Harry. At least you’ve stirred the pot. What I have never understood about any of this is why the government assumes the Telcos would be better stewards of spectrum than people with local ties and a proven record of local community service, as in broadcasters. And why would broadcasters want to cling to an outdated technology, when “their” spectrum has unbelievable upside potential by being used for something other than a television signal. The Telcos and their lobbying muscle have done a number on an industry already committed to localism. Why does anybody think Ma Bell can do it better. We are the most qualified people to be in the broadband business in local markets, period.

John Stelzer says:

August 22, 2011 at 11:30 am

The dysfunctional rhetoric is fed by the nationwide 20-contiguous-channel recovery objective of the National Broadband Plan, the constraints imposed by the existing digital television broadcast technical standard, and the inability of the FCC to reshuffle channels within Canada and Mexico. A true compromise would abandon the 120MHz objective in favor of recovering as much contiguous spectrum as is reasonable achievable, regionally, not nationally, after the “culling of the herd” auction process, along with the adoption and implementation of a new broadcast technical standard that preserves broadcasters’ present delivery capabilities, enhances delivery of their programming to mobile devices, and allows dynamic, opportunistic aggregation of stations’ unused data capacity to provide efficient, one-to-many delivery of other video content to consumers, offloading demand from the point-to-point data networks. The wireless industry wouldn’t get 120MHz in New York City, though they might in Montana. The broadcasters would have to go through one or more technically disruptive transitions, but could end up with a far more robust and flexible service, along with a supplemental source of income. Everyone needs to be willing to think “outside the box”, though, perhaps unrealistic in an era of economic uncertainty and financial pressure.

    Julie Caracciola says:

    August 22, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    What possible engineering objective is served by “contiguous” spectrum? This is a pointless and fantastically-costly and disruptive folly. Broadband services can be provided using non-contiguous groups of channels. Such a scheme not only works immediately and efficiently with the existing channelized allocation plan, it allows for future changes, improvements and for stations which “change their mind” about when and how much to do in the broadband business. At the high power levels associated with broadcast television, it serves no purpose to widen individual channels. The available spectrum entropy is fully-determined by signal-to-self-noise ratios (i.e. reflected coherent emission within a channel due to reflection). High power broadband is not analogous to simply being an oversized wireless router. A good course in information theory should be a first requirement for those attempting to re-engineer a highly-developed national communications system.

mike tomasino says:

August 22, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Hmmm… Harry, “peace in our time.” Would such a “treaty” have the same result as Neville Chamberlain’s treaty. Appeasement of tyrants? 😉

Ellen Samrock says:

August 22, 2011 at 3:02 pm

In a way, spectrum reclamation has already begun. The FCC has just announced a freeze on applications for low power stations on Ch. 51, in acknowledgement of the CTIA’s request that broadcast TV vacate that channel. But if you read the notice carefully, the FCC in order ” to facilitate the clearing of channel 51″ is asking for all stations and permit holders on channel 51, both full and low power, to begin seeking lower channels to relocate. So don’t be surprised if, very soon now, channel 51 will be considered out-of-core for broadcast television.

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