FCC Moves to Reallocate TV Spectrum

The FCC took steps Tuesday to reallocate some of the TV spectrum to wireless services, part of the regulator’s grand plan to speed wireless broadband adoption. In its monthly meeting, the FCC proposed new rules that would allow two or more stations to share spectrum currently held by a single station, thus freeing up spectrum for other uses.           

Underlying the proposed rule is the FCC’s position that there is a “spectrum” crunch and that wireless broadband needs more spectrum in order to flourish. The FCC would like broadcasters to voluntarily relinquish 300 MHz of spectrum, a concept that has been met with skepticism by broadcasters, which just vacated a third of the spectrum a year and a half ago to make the transition to digital broadcast.

The commission voted 5-0 to go ahead with the notice of proposed rulemaking, which will have a 45-day comment period, followed by a 40-day reply period.

“We are at an inflection point with our infrastructure. If we don’t act to update spectrum policies, we’re going to run into a spectrum crunch and cost us the opportunity to lead the world in mobile,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

The proposed rule, however, is a bit of a leap of faith, since the implementation of the rules depends on Congress taking legislative action.

“Our goal is to move quickly if Congress authorizes incentive auctions,” said Genachowski. “Infrastructure changes move slowly so we want to get ahead of it if and when Congress acts.”

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) issued a statement following the FCC’s meeting, saying he plans to introduce spectrum legislation next year.

“Spectrum is the oxygen of the Internet ecosystem, and its looming scarcity needs to be addressed to ensure the continued growth of the wireless broadband applications and services that help power our economy,” Markey said.

If the proposal remains voluntary, broadcasters have no quarrel with the FCC’s proposal, the National Association of Broadcasters said in a statement. But they are watching closely.

“Going forward, we believe policymakers have an obligation to maintain digital TV services currently provided by broadcasters and to allow free TV viewers to benefit from DTV video innovations. NAB will oppose government-mandated signal strength degradations or limitations, and new spectrum taxes that threaten the future of free and local broadcasting,” the NAB said in a statement.

Also part of the notice of proposed rulemaking, the FCC is seeking comment on how to technically improve reception for stations located on the VHF band. In the transition to digital broadcast, a number of stations on the VHF band lost coverage area and ended up fielding complaints from consumers that could not tune-in the station.

Though TV spectrum was center stage Tuesday, the big question on everyone’s mind was whether the Commission would put net neutrality on the Dec. 21 agenda. In another sign that it will be, the Commission delayed by one day the Dec. 21 agenda notice, originally due out today. When asked about net neutrality, Genachowski declined comment.

Genachowski also declined comment on the FCC’s review of the Comcast-NBC Universal transaction. With an impending net neutrality proposal, which will draw fire from Congressional Republicans, odds are growing that the FCC’s final decision on the deal is likely to be pushed to next year.