FCC wants 120MHz of spectrum from TV stations

The spectrum reallocation program would be voluntary, at least at first

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will seek to take back 120MHz of spectrum from U.S. television stations in the next five years and reallocate it to wireless broadband providers in a voluntary program that would allow the stations to share or keep spectrum auction revenues, under a national broadband plan that will be officially released Tuesday.

The FCC would seek approval from Congress to conduct "incentive auctions" of unused spectrum, including TV spectrum, and the agency could either act as a third-party auctioneer of the spectrum or share the auction proceeds with the sellers, according to the broadband plan, which the FCC released to reporters Monday.

The TV spectrum auctions are part of a goal to free up 500MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband over the next decade, one of the major goals of the 400-page broadband plan. If, however, the FCC doesn't get enough volunteers to free up spectrum, it will look for other ways to take back the spectrum, but FCC officials said Monday they expect to get enough TV stations to give up their extra spectrum in exchange for auction proceeds.

Only a few TV stations in major markets will need to turn over their spectrum in order for the FCC to meet its spectrum goals, an FCC official said.

The TV spectrum is sometimes called "beachfront property" for wireless broadband because of its ability to carry signals long distances and penetrate buildings and other obstacles. "Enabling the reallocation of this spectrum to broadband use in a way that would not harm consumers overall has the potential to create new economic growth and investment opportunities with limited potential impact on broadcast business models," the broadband plan said.

Under current rules, TV stations can sell their broadcast licenses or lease spectrum to other organizations for other uses. But spectrum leasing hasn't proven popular, because wireless broadband providers need more than a 6MHz band of spectrum in one TV market to provide a sustainable service, said one FCC official, speaking on background.

Unused broadcast spectrum could be worth up to US$50 billion, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during a recent briefing. About 300MHz of spectrum is set aside for broadcast TV, but in TV markets with fewer than 1 million people, about 36MHz are typically used for broadcasting, and even in the largest TV markets, only about half of the broadcast spectrum is used, he said.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), representing U.S. TV stations, pledged to work with the FCC on the broadband plan, but a spokesman said the plan raises concerns.

"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," said Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president. "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."

The FCC and Congress should conduct an inventory of all available spectrum before moving ahead, Wharton added. "No reallocation plan should move forward without a complete accounting of how the airwaves are allocated, licensed and used," he said.

Broadcasters returned 108MHz of spectrum as part of the transition from analog to digital TV that freed up the 700MHz spectrum auctioned in early 2008, Wharton noted. Broadcasters gave back more than a quarter of their spectrum for the 700MHz auction, he said.

CTIA, a trade group for mobile carriers, said recently its members need up to 800MHz of spectrum to meet growing wireless broadband demands. But the trade group also praised the FCC proposal to free up 500MHz of spectrum when the agency first released some details last month.

"Based on the executive summary [of the FCC plan], it is clear the broadband team recognized the importance of the mobile Internet to the economy and to meeting many national priorities," CTIA said in a statement. "We applaud their commitment to providing everyone equal access to the most advanced wireless communications."

The FCC's national broadband plan has several specific recommendations about how to free up new wireless spectrum. With the goal of freeing up 300MHz within five years, the FCC would count on broadcasters for 120MHz.

The FCC would also auction 10MHz of spectrum that was unsold in the 700MHz spectrum auctions that ended in March 2008. The so-called D block was designated for a shared commercial/public safety network, but the block failed to generate the minimum bid required by the FCC. Several public safety agencies have called on the FCC to give them the D block so they could move ahead with a nationwide, interoperable network, but the FCC broadband plan advocates that Congress pay $12 billion to $16 billion to build a nationwide network.

In addition, the FCC plan would make new spectrum available in the 2.3GHz wireless communications service band, in the advanced wireless services bands and in the mobile satellite spectrum to get to 300MHz in five years.

In addition to asking TV stations to give up spectrum, the FCC proposed to decrease distance-separation requirements between TV stations, create new spectrum licenses that allow multiple TV stations to operate in a single 6MHz band, and look at ways to reallocate, or repack, TV spectrum to clear up larger blocks of spectrum. TV stations that moved to new spectrum could have their expenses paid by the spectrum auction revenues, the FCC's plan said.

If the FCC does not get the 120MHz spectrum from TV stations voluntarily abandoning it, the agency should look into requiring over-the-air TV stations to broadcast using low-power cellular transmitters, look into selling spectrum licenses that overlay the TV spectrum, or consider requiring TV stations to share spectrum, the FCC plan said.

Some telecom experts have raised doubts that the FCC would get as much spectrum as it wants from voluntary efforts. The FCC's goals seem "completely unrealistic," said Daniel Hays, director of the telecom practice at PRTM, a management consultancy.

Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned whether broadcasters should give up additional spectrum.

It may be difficult to get broadcasters to voluntarily give up spectrum. said Rory Altman, director and co-founder of Altman Vilandrie & Co., a tech and telecom strategy consulting group. "The wireless industry needs more spectrum for all the mobile-device users out there, but broadcasters are hoarding the airwaves," he said. "The FCC's current proposal may not go far enough to convince broadcasters to give up their airwaves. The broadcasters hold the cards here."

The FCC plan also calls for the agency to free up a new, contiguous nationwide spectrum band for use by unlicensed devices. "This would enable innovators to try new ideas to increase spectrum access and efficiency ... and should enable new unlicensed providers to serve rural and underserved communities," the plan said.

But Thomas Lenard, president of free-market think tank the Technology Policy Institute, questioned the need for more unlicensed spectrum

"In my view, the most important part of the plan, if successful, will be the effort to increase the amount of flexibly licensed spectrum available for broadband use," he said. "I am somewhat concerned that the emphasis on freeing spectrum for unlicensed use -- which would not be the most effective or efficient way to ensure growth in broadband availability -- may detract from the effort to increase flexibly licensed spectrum."

The FCC should focus more on looking at government spectrum holdings and identifying other sources of spectrum that could be better used, Lenard added. "This could be an important source of spectrum for mobile broadband as well as an important source of auction revenues," he said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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