Broadcasters Take Aim

Opposition to FCC spectrum plan solidifies

The National Association of Broadcasters has toughened its defense of over-the-air spectrum holdings through an assault on what is arguably the centerpiece of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s term to date.

In a study filed by the NAB at the commission last week, a former FCC Wireless Bureau official said the FCC’s National Broadband Plan relied on insufficient analysis and faulty data. Those are fighting words, given the chairman’s emphasis at the outset that the plan would be based on thorough data. That plan called for reclaiming up to 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum, a plan that broadcasters are chafi ng against as an overreaction to wireless and consumer electronics firms’ calls for more spectrum, dissing over-the-air TV in the process as inefficient squatters on valuable mobile broadband real estate.

Elsewhere, hundreds of local broadcasters told the FCC in comments last week that its spectrum proposal would be unlawfully arbitrary and capricious and irreparably harm their service, while state broadcast groups spoke with one voice against the plan unless it includes an ironclad guarantee that it’s completely voluntary. Broadcasters are pushing for alternatives, including allowing them to negotiate individually with wireless carriers to help handle peak loads of broadband traffic on a flexible, local and regional basis.

NAB President Gordon Smith effectively signaled the get-tough stance at last month’s NAB convention in Las Vegas. “[W]e are in full battle mode to protect broadcasters from being forced to give up spectrum involuntarily,” Smith said, a push that includes the repacking of stations that choose not to take a government buyout if Congress gives the FCC the OK.

NAB has said it does not oppose a voluntary spectrum reclamation plan that holds broadcasters “harmless,” but FCC chief Genachowski told broadcasters at the convention that they don’t get to take repacking off the table. “[V]oluntary can’t mean undermining the potential effectiveness of an auction by giving every broadcaster a new and unprecedented right to keep their exact channel location,” Genachowski said.

But according to consultant Uzoma Onyeije, former FCC broadband legal advisor to the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau from 2003- 2006, “the factual basis for the ‘spectrum crisis’ claim is underwhelming. It appears that the notion of a need for large-scale spectrum reallocation to address a shortage of mobile spectrum is based on questionable assumptions designed to achieve a particular result.”

“[T]he NAB ‘study’ ignores the most obvious and telling question—if wireless providers could solve their spectrum needs cheaply or don’t have spectrum needs at all, why would they want to pay billions of dollars for such an unnecessary asset?” countered CTIA and the Consumer Electronics Association. “Anyone who has studied not only projections, but also actual use of mobile networks, knows that our wireless networks desperately need more capacity—wireless companies are seeking more spectrum for their networks because their customers demand it.”

But Onyeije had his own wish list of alternatives he said should be able to address the spectrum crunch—which he said is really a capacity crunch, and even that is overstated.

The FCC was quick to fire back. “There’s no denying that the looming spectrum crunch is real and that we need to take action now,” said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny. “[T]he mobile revolution places an enormous demand on our airwaves or spectrum—America’s invisible infrastructure. We simply can’t afford to study this to death while the rest of the world passes us by. We need to take every step possible, including voluntary incentive auctions, to free up spectrum and ensure our global competitiveness.”

Blair Levin, who oversaw the broadband plan, which he has always billed as a work in progress, told B&C he agrees there are plenty of options, but that does not take freeing up more spectrum off the table. “Every engineer knows, as they used to say in NASA, with enough thrust anything will fly. The question is what is the cost of the thrust. And, yes, there are multiple ways of solving any problem, but anyone who studies history and technology recognizes that solving these problems with more spectrum is often a more efficient way than some of the things Onyeije mentions.”

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