Technology

CES 2010: Spectrum Debate Hits the Strip

Telcos, MSTV spar over potential reallocation 1/08/2010 12:49:31 PM Eastern

The debate over whether the federal government should
reclaim part, or all, of broadcasters' spectrum and reallocate it for wireless
broadband applications continued at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
Thursday (Jan. 7), as representatives of broadcasters, telcos, policy groups
and Wall Street argued over how the spectrum can most efficiently be used.

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 ‘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.

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