Call it a spectrum tug-of-war. The Federal Communications Commission is thinking about either taking or buying back some of TV broadcasters’ digital spectrum to support broadband wireless services. If the idea comes to fruition, it could have a devastating effect on TV broadcasters, which have barely had time to monetize their new spectrum.
Blair Levin, the FCC’s broadband czar, floated the spectrum shuffle idea several times in recent weeks. If the idea gains ground, it could become part of the National Broadband Plan Status Report, which the FCC must deliver to Congress on Feb. 17.
Broadcasters, who invested $15 billion to make the DTV switch at a difficult economic time—giving up a third of their spectrum for the promise of multicasting and mobile broadcasting—are gearing up for a potential battle. They could be facing off against another powerful lobby representing wireless broadband giants such as AT&T and Verizon.
“The wireless industry is experiencing stress and strain on their network, but there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction,” said Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition. “There’s a lot of hype to the issue of spectrum scarcity.”
At risk are hundreds of multicast channels and the rollout of mobile DTV, which will make it possible for viewers to watch free over-the-air TV on mobile devices, and for stations to expand their audiences. “We don’t know what the plan is, but we have concerns when there are discussions about reconfiguring everything we just went through,” said Paul Karpowicz, president of Meredith Broadcast and TV board chair for the National Association of Broadcasters. “What is important now is that broadcasters get together with the FCC and try to have an understanding.”
Mobile DTV is already rolling out and will have 38 percent coverage by the end of 2009. “You won’t ever see a similar service from the cellular services,” said Schelle.
As for multicast, a lot of free programming would go away. New Spanish-language net Estrella TV, for example, relies on multicast channels for 16 of its 25 affiliates. Local weather channels, hyper-local news and high school sports would also disappear. “It’s devastating to think of,” said Neal Ardman, a principal of RTV, which supplies programming to 128 multicast channels. “Multicast allows stations to serve many niches, especially those that can’t afford satellite or cable.”