Could Low-Power TV Be the Cure for Spectrum Crunch?

New proposal comes at 11th hour of debate on the Hill

A coalition composed mostly low-power TV stations thinks it has the answer to the nation's growing demand for more wireless spectrum. Instead of the current plan, which would involve auctioning off spectrum voluntarily relinquished by broadcasters, the proposal from the Coalition for Free TV and Broadband calls for Congress to allow broadcasters to use some of their spectrum to offer wireless services.

The proposal, unveiled Thursday, is being pitched to Congress as an alternative to the current spectrum reform proposals kicking around on Capitol Hill. The coalition claims its plan could bring in $80 billion for the U.S. Treasury between 2014 and 2023, much higher than the $6 billion an auction would net, according to an estimate from the Office of Management and Budget. 

"There's a choice out there and it's simple," said Irwin Podhajser, chairman of the coalition. "Congress needs to take a serious look at what they are doing."

The proposal would require legislation allowing broadcasters to change the terms of their license and change the technical broadcast standard, less than three years after the entire broadcast TV business underwent a massive transition to digital broadcast. Then the broadcasters could use their spectrum to provide wireless bandwidth. That, at least, is the idea, but the coalition has been nothing if not vague about how, exactly, things would work from there. 

To complicate matters further, the coalition is coming in with its proposal just when the spectrum debate on the Hill appears to have reached its 11th hour.

Even the coalition admits that momentum isn't in its favor. "Some [members of Congress] are just gung-ho on the auction. They have blinders on. They want to score against the debt," said Mark Aitken, vice president of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, a coalition member.

That sentiment was echoed by the Federal Communications Commission, which has been relentless in its call for Congress to grant it authority to hold incentive auctions. "Like the transition to digital television, any change in broadcast standards would impact current technology and devices and would take an extended period of time. In the meantime, we face a spectrum crunch now and the single biggest step we can take towards solving it is to move forward with voluntary incentive auctions," said an FCC official in an emailed statement.

On the other hand, the solution, which would allow consumers to access the same popular video streams, could alleviate the inevitable traffic jam created by the one-to-one delivery of current wireless models. "The only way we will solve the current problem is to use the best qualities of two distinctly different networks, by layering broadcasting on top of unicasting," said Aitken.

"There would be no data usage caps and the quality of video would be higher," said John Hane, an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pitman, which represents Sinclair.

The wireless companies, which would have to work with the broadcast community to make such a proposal happen, are already pushing back. "This strikes me as nothing more than a self-serving arbitrage play," said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents big wireless companies such as AT&T and Verizon, in an emailed statement. "The U.S. wireless industry has a proven record for delivering affordable broadband service. This is in stark contrast to the speculative, untested proposal advanced by the LPTV industry."

The National Association of Broadcasters was playing it coy, holding to its current position that it did not oppose incentive auctions as long as broadcasters who choose to stay in business aren't harmed. "We're studying the proposal, which offers interesting ideas worth reviewing," said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president for the NAB.

The coalition seems determined to get a hearing on the Hill. Coalition members met with representatives from the House Energy & Commerce Committee on Thursday. They're also concentrating on the members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—the so-called "Super Committee"—who are reviewing spectrum auctions as one way to reduce government debt. 

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