CES 2010: Spectrum Debate Hits the Strip
Telcos, MSTV spar over potential reallocation
By Glen Dickson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/8/2010 12:49:31 PM
During the panel discussion "The Spectrum Grab and Innovation," moderated by Washington Post technology columnist Rob Pegoraro, Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) President David Donovan staunchly defended broadcasters' use of the spectrum to provide free over-the-air television and new mobile DTV services against assertions by Qualcomm and AT&T executives that parts of the broadcast spectrum would be put to better use for mobile broadband.
"One of the clear focuses of this convention is the use of broadcast spectrum for mobile DTV purposes," said Donovan, who added that mobile DTV should be considered as part of the country's overall broadband plan that is currently being formulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
He noted that the most bandwidth-intensive application being cited for wireless broadband is the delivery of wireless video, and that broadcaster's point-to-multipoint system with mobile DTV would be the most efficient way to deliver video, particularly live video.
"This spectrum is being used extremely efficiently, and the new services out there now are consistent with that," said Donovan.
Not in attendance for the panel was FCC broadband advisor Blair Levin, who was originally scheduled to provide introductory remarks. Levin's absence was not surprising, as the FCC informed Congress late Wednesday that it wouldn't deliver the FCC's national broadband plan by the original Feb. 17 deadline and asked for a four-week extension.
Phil Bellaria, director of scenario planning for the FCC's National Broadband Task Force, stood in for Levin and described the FCC's stance on broadband. He said that most of the country's productivity gains had been tied to the Internet, and with the Internet increasingly shifting to mobile devices, it is necessary for the FCC to address wireless broadband capacity now before it is too late. Bellaria noted that wireless data usage is projected to grow at double-digit rates until 2013.
"The preponderance of evidence suggests that there will be a looming spectrum crisis in six to 10 years if we don't do anything today," said Bellaria, who added that "the risk is far greater if we under-invest in wireless broadband."
Dean Brenner, VP of government affairs for Qualcomm, said that "mobile broadband is driving the economy" and that the government needs to move faster on freeing up spectrum for wireless broadband than it did with the digital TV transition.
"We can't have 18-year long processes," said Brenner.
Brenner said that new wireless technologies like femtocells and LTE (long-term evolution) will only create marginal increases in capacity and that U.S. consumers are "maxing out on the data rate."
"There is a pressing need in the U.S. for more spectrum for the broadband system," said Brenner. "Look around you---everyone's on their Blackberry, everyone is texting."
Joan Marsh, VP of federal regulatory affairs for AT&T, agreed, saying that wireless broadband traffic had grown 5,000% over three years.
"We must start the process now, we can't wait until we're in crisis mode," said Marsh.
Janice Obuchowski, president of spectrum consulting firm Freedom Technologies, Inc. and a former head of the NTIA, acknowledged that the government needs to "rethink the way we use spectrum" but said that politicians calling the spectrum issue a "crisis" is unnecessary rhetoric.
"I, for one, am â€˜crisis-ed' out this year," said Obuchowski. "This is a bit of a manufactured crisis. This is a problem that needs to be solved in a six- to 10-year cycle."
While broadcasters are often cited as having "beachfront property" with their UHF channels, Donovan maintained that broadcasters actually occupy a relatively small swath of the usable spectrum for broadband. He said it was essential that the FCC conduct a spectrum usage inventory analysis, to see exactly how spectrum holders are using their capacity.
"We think there's roughly 749 megahertz of spectrum that's available for broadband purposes now," said Donovan. "A lot has been assigned, but a lot has not been deployed yet."
Michael Calabrese, VP for public policy institute New America Foundation, agreed with the need for a close examination of spectrum usage. He said that if one were to go out with a spectrum analyzer to check usage, one would find that less than 20% of the total spectrum is being used at any one time, even in crowded markets like New York and Washington, D.C.
"People talk about the scarcity of spectrum," said Calabrese. "The only thing scarce is the government's permission to use it."
Much of the discussion was over the government's management of the digital TV transition, which freed up spectrum for telcos and public safety applications but was criticized by some for taking too long and others for not reallocating enough capacity for broadband use. Sanford Bernstein Senior Analyst Craig Moffett questioned the basic premise of the digital TV transition, spending billions of dollars to create a new over-the-air delivery system to serve the small minority of the population that still relies on over-the-air TV, a number he put at around 10%.
While acknowledging the question was "politically incorrect," Moffett said the core question that should have been addressed during the DTV transition was: "Does it really make sense to have everyone on the broadcast spectrum?"
Moffet said that the money the government spent on coupons for the NTIA converter-box program could have perhaps been better spent hooking up those consumers to cable or satellite services, and claiming all the broadcast spectrum for broadband.
"15 years from now, do we want to be the country with the best technology for watching TV, or the best technology for mobile broadband?" said Moffett.
Donovan bristled at that suggestion, saying it wasn't feasible for the government to move free over-the-air viewers to pay-TV "for life" and claiming that the percentage of viewers that rely on over-the-air DTV is higher than 10% and growing. He said free over-the-air broadcast TV was still essential to deliver news and emergency information in times of crisis, and pointed out that scores of cable operators, and virtually all satellite pay-TV services, rely on receiving over-the-air DTV signals from local stations before retransmitting them to customers.
More important, said Donovan, is that the broadcast system is still the best methodology for delivering live video to the mobile masses. He said there was no need to give reams of spectrum to telcos to support video delivery over wireless broadband when broadcasters already have such a system in place today with mobile DTV, and pointed out that Qualcomm uses a point-to-multipoint broadcast system for its FLO TV subscription-based mobile TV service today.
Donovan predicted that if telcos like Verizon and AT&T were to attempt mass delivery of live video via point-to-point (also known as "unicast") cellular connections, they would quickly find that their networks couldn't support it. Five or ten years from now they would be back to the drawing board, he said, creating their own broadcast system.
"The demand quotient [for mobile broadband] is largely made up by providing video," said Donovan. "Broadcasters will be providing mobile video services to Netbooks, to cellphones, to cars, and we are providing it in the most technically efficient manner. A point-to-multipoint system, as Dean's system is, is the best way to get real-time news, sports and information services to the public."
Speaking privately after the panel discussion, Bellaria said the FCC is well aware of the technical challenge of providing live video to a mass audience through wireless broadband networks, though he noted that challenge isn't much different than providing live streaming to a mass audience over wireline broadband services. When it was pointed out that that the big distinction between DTV (and proposed mobile DTV simulcasts) and wireline broadband services was that DTV was free, he said it "comes down to consumer preference." That said, Bellaria acknowledged that point-to-multipoint was still the most technically efficient way to deliver a live TV program like Fox's American Idol to a national audience.
"Despite the rhetoric, nobody on the broadband team has talked about removing over-the-air broadcasting," he said.
When asked about the state of the broadband plan, Bellaria said the FCC "analytically felt comfortable where we are" but asked for a delay "so we would have time to incorporate feedback from all the necessary stakeholders," including FCC commissioners and members of Congress. He thought having a good, comprehensive plan was worth the delay.
"Five years from now, nobody's going to remember whether we delivered it on Feb. 17 or March 17," he said.
Bellaria "...noted that (the) challenge isn't much different than providing live streaming to a mass audience over wireline broadband services." Ha. The FCC's live webinars have failed out on this end of the series of tubes. Gee. You would not think the large telco's are thinkin' of grabbing what people get for free now and charging for it, would you? In any event, I, and my rural viewers who can't get cable or satellite would scream, and the US Treasury will never spill enough money to serve them.
Jeremy Lansman - 1/8/2010 7:58:57 PM EST
or you do an editorial following your noon news like i watched VIA THE INTERNET today (a pittsburgh tv station while i'm in detroit) where the pres/gm says "there are those out there that want to take away your free tv".
yeah, name one.
steve - 1/8/2010 3:23:21 PM EST
I support the FCC's National Broadband plan, however, my advice is abandon the Television Model and give up the entire broadcasting, cable, and satellite spectrums to other wireless companies.
People who want to continue watching their shows will need to buy a computer and internet service.
Cable companies will need to stop offering their cable service and start offering internet service in order for this nationwide broadband to happen.
If the FCC wants a nationwide broadband to go into effect, they will need to order everyone to take their TVs (including Hi-defs) and dump them into their local recycling center or landfills. The Television Model is no longer needed anyway.
Josh Taylor - 1/8/2010 2:20:56 PM EST
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