Spectrum Speculation

It should not have come as a surprise. The FCC last week
officially took the wraps off its plan to get spectrum back
from broadcasters and turn it over to the wireless broadband
industry for all those killer apps.

Broadcasters have been preparing for that eventuality,
arguing at the FCC at every opportunity that broadcasting is an efficient user of spectrum, has already given up real estate in the DTV
transition, and will make good use of the rest with HD programming
and mobile DTV and multicasting. But it still must have hurt
a bit to hear the FCC chairman basically say that broadcasters were
inefficiently standing in the way of the broadband future. Ouch.

The FCC has been talking for months with broadcasters and
others about scenarios in which it could get back some of what
it considers beachfront property. Phil Bellaria, lead staffer on the
FCC’s spectrum reclamation plan, told B&C last month that the
national broadband push anticipated paying broadcasters to voluntarily
clear spectrum. “The reality is that we are not trying to take
spectrum from any individual broadcaster unless that broadcaster
chooses to [give it up],” he said. And we will hold him to it.

As Bellaria described to us, TV stations can choose to keep
all of their spectrum, or give
up all of it, or something in
between. The program is
billed as voluntary, but only if
the FCC gets enough takers.
But what if it gets too many?
In this economic climate, what
if broadcasters in an entire
market decided to sell out,
or a network saw a chance to
move its model to cable or
online with the government’s blessing?

“The FCC is already required by law to make sure there is a
fair representation of broadcasters in every state,” says someone
familiar with the broadband team’s thinking on the issue. “There
are a number of levers the FCC could use to ensure continuation
of over-the-air broadcasts in a market, including establishing
rules in any spectrum auction that would require a level of over - the-
air service remain.”

So, fair warning. The FCC wants the reclamation plan to be a
success, just not too much so. Just how the commission would
decide who had to stick around, if it came to that, is not clear.

Broadcast executives from around the country will gather this
week in Washington for their annual lobbying trip. Look for this
issue to be top of mind.

Their challenge will be to make their case without seeming
to be Luddites standing in the way of a broadband utopia of
online medical checkups and energy audits and job training
and all those other national purposes. That goal is achievable
if they stick with the hand they have been dealt: that they
remain an efficient way to deliver information to a mass, yet
local, audience for free, and that they are a player in the broadband