The FCC's National Broadband Plan calls for the agency to reallocate more than a third of the broadcast TV spectrum -- 120 MHz of 300 MHz -- for wireless broadband access within the next five years through a combination of "repacking" the band and "voluntary" channel sharing among stations.
FCC Wants 120 MHz Back From TV
Toward its ambitious goal to make affordable broadband access to all Americans by 2020, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan calls for the agency to reallocate more than a third of the broadcast TV spectrum — 120 MHz of 300 MHz — for wireless broadband access within the next five years.
The plan calls for the FCC to free up at least 36 MHz from the broadcast spectrum band by “repacking” the band and obtain the balance of the 120 MHz by encouraging “voluntary” channel sharing among stations.
The recovered spectrum would be auctioned to wireless broadband access operators and, with the blessing of Congress, the proceeds would be shared with the broadcasters, the plan says. The plan makes no mention of how the proceeds might be split.
It is, in essence, the same plan that Blair Levin, the head of the task force that wrote the plan, floated last October in informal discussions with broadcasters.
“The preference is to establish a voluntary, market-based mechanism to effect a reallocation,” the plan says.
However, the plan also says that if authorized by Congress the FCC should consider imposing spectrum fees on commercial, full-power TV stations.
And, it adds, Congress should consider using those fees as well as some of the spectrum auction proceeds to fund an “endowment” for noncommercial media.
Fearing that the nation is falling behind other countries, Congress asked the FCC for a plan on improving broadband access in the United States last spring as part of its economic stimulus package.
FCC officially delivered the 356-page plan to Congress today, although it released copies to reporters yesterday after details began leaking to the press.
“The National Broadband Plan is a 21st century roadmap to spur economic growth and investment, create jobs, educate our children, protect our citizens, and engage in our democracy,” said Chairman Julius Genachowski in a press release this morning. “It’s an action plan, and action is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues.”
The entire report is now available on the FCC website. Chapter five deals with broadcasting and spectrum and is the basis for this story.
The plan sees high-speed mobile networks as critical to the nation’s broadband competitiveness and thus seeks to reallocate spectrum from other services and make it available to wireless providers through auctions.
Under the plan, the recovered TV spectrum would be pooled with spectrum from mobile satellite and other non-broadcast users. The goal is to come up with 500 MHz for wireless broadband within 10 years, including 300 MHz within the next five.
The plan sees channel-sharing as the most productive way of recapturing broadcast spectrum. Two stations could share a channel and still each broadcast an HD programming service, it says.
“Alternatively, more than two stations broadcasting in SD (not HD) could share a 6 MHz channel. Numerous permutations are possible, including dynamic arrangements whereby broadcasters sharing a channel reach agreements to exchange capacity to enable higher or lower transmission bit rates depending on market-driven choices.”
The plan says that the FCC should ensure that each station in a channel-sharing arrangement continues to enjoy must-carry rights.
The plan hopes to induce broadcasters to share channels or simply give back their spectrum by giving them a share of the proceeds from the auctioning of the spectrum to wireless providers.
To share proceeds from what it calls incentive auctions with broadcasters, the FCC will have to get the permission of Congress.
The plan makes the case for that permission.
“Incentive auctions can provide a practical, market-based way to reassign spectrum, shifting a contentious process to a cooperative one,” the plan argues. They can be “especially useful where fragmentation of spectrum licenses makes it difficult for private parties to aggregate spectrum in marketable quantities.”
The plan acknowledges that the government would have a tough time forcing stations off of their spectrum.
“FCC spectrum licensees often possess certain rights and expectations that can make it difficult, in practice, for the FCC to reclaim and re-license that spectrum for another purpose. Contentious spectrum proceedings can be time-consuming, sometimes taking many years to resolve, and incurring significant opportunity costs.”
According to the plan, channel sharing gives stations an alternative to other proposed uses for excess digital capacity, namely multicasting or mobile DTV.
The plan points out that broadcasters have launched on average fewer than one multicasting channel per station. “The revenue generated by such services has been modest thus far and is forecast to remain so in the near term….”
The plan also downplays mobile DTV. The business model is uncertain, it says. Entities other than broadcasters are pursuing the mobile video business, it says, “but the method of delivery that will be favored by consumers and be successful in the market has yet to be determined.”
While the channel sharing would be voluntary, the repacking would not.
To recover at least 36 MHz from the broadcasting, the plan proposes that the FCC reduce the service areas and distance separation among stations operating on the same or adjacent channels. The plan says that this could be done “without increasing interference to unacceptable levels.”
However, the plan acknowledges that repacking as well as channel sharing would result is some loss of service.
“Some over-the-air consumers would lose reception from one or more stations as a result of stations voluntarily going off the air, choosing to share channels with other stations (and thus change their service area), or experiencing loss in service area due to increased interference following a repacking.
“In addition, over-the-air consumers would need to reorient antennas or rescan their TVs, as they did following the DTV transition in June 2009.”
To mitigate the impact on consumers, the plan says the FCC should ensure that consumers in rural areas and small markets are not significantly impacted.
Also, it says, the FCC should “ensure that longstanding policy goals…are to be met, such as localism, viewpoint diversity, competition and opportunities for new entrants to participate in the industry, including women and members of minority groups.”
The plan suggests that some of the proceeds from broadcast spectrum auctions could be used so that consumers that meet certain unspecified criteria, presumably low income and elderly, could continue to receive all broadcast signals through cable or satellite.
The plan comes with a back-up plan for freeing up broadcast spectrum.
“If the FCC does not receive authorization to conduct incentive auctions, or if the incentive auctions do not yield a significant amount of spectrum, the FCC should pursue other mechanisms,” it says.
- Modify licenses to require stations to share channels “where necessary.”
- Conduct so-called overlay auctions to broadcast spectrum. It would be left to the winners of such auctions to negotiate with incumbent broadcasters to clear the spectrum. The broadcasters would not share in the auction proceeds, “but they should receive reimbursement from auction winners for any relocation or other transition expenses incurred.”
- Transition broadcasting to a cellular architecture, in which stations would broadcast over a network of multiple low-power transmitters using new distributed transmission system and single frequency network technology. Such an approach would free up spectrum by reducing or eliminating “the need for channel interference protections that result in only a fraction of the total spectrum allocated to broadcast being used directly by stations.”
The plan also calls on the FCC to move expeditiously to close it white spaces proceeding, which opens up unused broadcast channels in every markets for use by unlicensed broadband access and other computer devices. In trials, it says, the industry has “demonstrated the promise and potential” of white spaces without causing interference to broadcasters.
MSTV President David Donovan: “MSTV supports voluntary efforts that will help facilitate the deployment of additional wireless broadband outlets. We look forward to working with the commissioners and the Congress to facilitate the goals of the National Broadband Plan.
“Unfortunately, according to some reports today, the plan does not appear to be fully voluntary. The National Broadband Plan could force television broadcasters to change channels and reduce service areas, perhaps stranding millions of viewers. And ‘non-volunteers’ might be punished with onerous spectrum fees and other indirectly coercive measures.”
Rep. Henry Waxman: “Chairman Genachowski and the FCC are to be commended for producing this comprehensive and forward-looking report that touches on so many aspects of American society. As the plan notes, ‘Broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century.’
“The plan will be a critically important tool as Congress looks to the challenge of utilizing fully the transformative power of broadband. I look forward to exploring the recommendations in more detail and in the bipartisan manner we have traditionally addressed communications and technology issues.
“Chairman Boucher’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet will hold its first hearing on the National Broadband Plan on Thursday, March 25, 2010. All five FCC commissioners have been invited to testify.”
Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller: “Broadband can remake our communications networks in our new century. But more than that, it can make a difference in people’s lives — change education, improve health care, shore up business and employment opportunities, and foster a new and more democratic dialogue.
“During the last decade, we have watched as our nation risked becoming a broadband backwater. So I welcome the FCC’s National Broadband Plan. I look forward to reading and reviewing its recommendations. But above all, I look forward to the FCC moving ahead to make broadband a reality for everyone in this country, no matter who they are and no matter where they live.”
NAB EVP Dennis Wharton: “We were pleased by initial indications from FCC members that any spectrum reallocation would be voluntary, and were therefore prepared to move forward in a constructive fashion on that basis. However, we are concerned by reports today that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised. Moreover, as the nation’s only communications service that is free, local and ubiquitous, we would oppose any attempt to impose onerous new spectrum fees on broadcasters.”
NCTA President-CEO Kyle McSlarrow: “Chairman Genachowski and his staff working on the Omnibus Broadband Initiative should be commended for their efforts to draft a broadband ‘blueprint’ that surveys the technology landscape, that identifies industry progress to date and remaining policy challenges, and that suggests new ideas and reforms to advance our common goal of promoting investment, innovation, and broadband networks that are second to none. As with any report of this size, variety and complexity, we expect that we will have points of agreement and disagreement on specific issues. But the report makes a significant contribution to the dialogue, and we remain committed to working with all members of the commission in discussing new ideas and initiatives that will facilitate the ubiquitous availability and use of robust broadband networks.”
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.): “The National Broadband Plan will unleash a tidal wave of new investment and innovation. Broadband is essential infrastructure for the 21st century, enabling us to compete in the global economy, save money on electricity bills and create good-paying jobs.
“The National Broadband Plan positions our country to lead in this vital area, and I am pleased that the Commission has produced such as visionary, far-reaching plan with specific strategies and goals to help our country compete and win in the fiercely competitive global economy.”
Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge: “The Federal Communications Commission has produced a balanced, comprehensive and forward-looking plan that should serve the country well. The U.S. has long needed such a plan to keep pace other countries, and this plan, if implemented, will accomplish that objective.”
Dr. Mark Cooper, director of research, Consumer Federation of America: “We see today’s National Broadband Plan report to congress as a significant first step in the right direction. It strikes a good balance between what needs to be done in the long-term and what can be done in the immediate future. Given the complete absence of policies to address the digital divide and promote competition in broadband in the past decade, this is an ambitious agenda and a good starting point for responding to the challenge confronting the U.S. communications network.”