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Broadcasters Ramp Up Spectrum Debate

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The debate over whether there is a looming wireless spectrum crunch is growing louder on Capitol Hill. TV broadcasters, targeted as a source of spectrum, are taking the gloves off as they try to shift the debate, and they’re bringing the fight to an old, familiar foe.

In a letter sent Friday to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Commerce Committees, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) contended that Time Warner Cable is squatting on "Advanced Wireless Spectrum" with no immediate plans to deploy it.

"If there truly is a 'spectrum crisis,' then allowing companies the size of Time Warner to hoard airwaves should not be permitted," wrote Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the NAB. He added that wireless carriers are sitting on as much as $15 billion in spectrum that has yet to be deployed.

Smith's letter follows remarks made last week by TWC executives during the company's quarterly earnings call.

"We have no current plans to divest of the [AWS] spectrum or otherwise monetize it. And at this moment in time, we don't have specific plans to utilize it either," said Robert Marcus, COO of TWC, said at the time.

Since last year, when the Federal Communications Commission unleashed its National Broadband Plan, the FCC—backed by President Obama, who wants wireless broadband to cover 98 percent of all Americans—has called for more wireless spectrum to deal with an anticipated crunch. To get that spectrum, the FCC suggested that TV broadcasters voluntarily relinquish 300 MHz. The idea hasn't played well with the broadcasters, which just vacated a third of their spectrum for public safety and wireless services as part of the transition to digital broadcasting a year a half ago.

Broadcasters and others have suggested that there needs to be a thorough inventory of what’s available before regulators seek to reallocate it.

"Cable companies have bought spectrum over the last 10 or 15 years that's been lying fallow,” Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon, said last April during a Council on Foreign Relations panel. “So here the FCC is out running around looking for new sources of spectrum, and we've got probably 150 megahertz of spectrum sitting out there that people own that aren't being built on. I don't get that."

Even the wireless industry, which has been agitating for more spectrum and would love broadcasters to give up some of theirs, agreed that cable companies need to step up to help meet the growing demand.

"[Cable companies] don't appear to be in a rush," said John Walls, vp of public affairs, CTIA-The Wireless Association. "The most prudent policy would be to facilitate deployment."

Time Warner Cable spokespeople were not immediately available for comment.