Spectrum-Sharing Plan Hits Roadblock

Database problems further hinder reclamation of broadcasters' ENG band for mobile services

The drive to establish DTV and reclaim old analog channels has suffered its share of potholes, but nothing like the axle-breakers encountered by a similar government plan to take some spectrum that broadcasters use for backhaul transmissions and give it to wireless services and others.

For half a decade, the FCC has been trying to figure out how broadcasters can share spectrum used for electronic newsgathering with purveyors of new mobile satellite services (MSS) and others seeking spots on various broadcast auxiliary bands. ENG allows broadcasters to transmit sports, news and other programming from the field back to TV studios for editing prior to broadcast. Plans to share the spectrum have been plagued by delays and are now a couple of years behind schedule.

The latest setback came April 15, when database problems forced the FCC to postpone for six months plans to implement coordination procedures necessary to make room for the new services and estimate any compensation for stations.

The problem stems from an FCC licensing database that failed to account for the number of TV pick-up transmitters used and other demands on backhaul channels. Because of the oversights, the database contains inaccurate geographic coordinates as well as incorrect antenna heights, makes and models. The blame lies less with the FCC than with outdated or missing information, particularly for licenses granted before receive-site information was required in 1974.

An analysis by consultants Cavell, Mertz & Davis showed that, for 6,163 out of 21,033 backhaul channels, almost a third, geographic coordinates for the location of receive stations were either missing or inaccurate. "It should be readily apparent" that the licensing database of auxiliary channels is not yet ready to support mandatory coordinating procedures, the Society of Broadcast Engineers told the FCC in a request for the delay. The society received half of the one-year postponement it requested.

In postponing the procedures until Oct. 16, the FCC agreed that, absent a stay, broadcasters "will suffer irreparable harm" because, without a fix in the database, there is increased likelihood of interference to receive facilities.

This isn't the first delay. Negotiations between MSS companies and broadcasters have dragged on since summer 2000 over what compensation TV stations should receive for replacing or recalibrating equipment to accommodate new, downsized channels on the 2 GHz band.

The FCC is now pledged to reveal compensation details before Sept. 6, when mandatory negotiations between the two industries expire. The FCC is forcing broadcasters to eventually relinquish 35 MHz on that band and will shrink the size of ENG channels.

Delays in working out compensation have frustrated AT&T Wireless and Celsat America, which have urged the FCC to ignore one of their own and start issuing licenses for portions of the 2 GHz band. They criticized ICO Global Communications for hindering reallocation of the spectrum with a fight to reduce the cost of moving broadcasters. "ICO continues to waste the commission's time with yet another attempt to undermine the process and avoid paying their rightful costs to relocate existing 2 GHz license holders," AT&T told regulators in a May 2000 letter. At the time, ICO was undergoing bankruptcy reorganization.

Broadcasters also will be sharing auxiliary spectrum on the 950 MHz and 2.5, 7 and 13 GHz bands as well.

On the 2.5 GHz band, potential problems became apparent when an FCC order declared that low earth satellite stations faced little interference concerns on channel A10 because no broadcast facilities were located there. But the broadcast engineers countered that they were "aghast" that, in fact, there were "no fewer" than 87 TV facilities using channel A10.

By letting broadcasters amend existing license information, the FCC also relieved stations of what could have been a $24 million bill if they had been forced to make new applications for licenses from scratch. Each new application would cost roughly $3,820 in FCC fees and consulting costs, the broadcast engineers said.

Spectrum-sharing has posed such thorny problems that, in 2001, the society hired a national frequency-coordination director to serve on its headquarters staff in Indianapolis. The post also oversees game-day frequency-coordination efforts with the National Football League, which the SBE has been assisting since 1999, as well as regular frequency coordination through the SBE's nationwide network of volunteer coordinators.