FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski addresses CES


The head of the Federal Communications Commission keynoted a session at the Consumer Electronics Show Friday 1/7/11, praising the rapid-fire developments taking place in communications technology and reminding everybody of the need to free up spectrum to keep the innovation flowing. He did not come out with both guns blazing in the direction of broadcast television, but he did a potshot, to which the NAB took exception.

In the speech as prepared for delivery, Genachowski mentioned television only a couple of times. He said, “We completed our DTV transition before other countries, and are beginning to reap the benefits of our digital dividend.” He added, “We recently freed up “white spaces” spectrum in the television bands, the most significant amount of unlicensed spectrum made available by the FCC in 25 years — something CEA has long advocated, and an important new platform for innovation. This robust spectrum will bring innovations like Super Wi-Fi – faster and stronger than current Wi-Fi, and with greater coverage.”

According to Hillicon Valley, his potshot was the observation that some broadcasters have not been making maximum use of their spectrum and that they should take a serious look at participating in voluntary auctions to free the spectrum for a higher purpose.

NAB’s Dennis Wharton responded to Genachowski’s remarks, saying, “Broadcasters have no quarrel with an incentive auction that is truly voluntary. It’s also noteworthy that broadcasters have already returned 108 MHz of spectrum to the government, a position that makes us the only user of airwaves that has returned spectrum to the government. Simply put, broadcast television is far and away the most efficient user of spectrum because of a ‘one-to-many’ transmission system that is remarkably reliable in a communications era best known for inconsistent ‘one-to-one’ cellphone connections.”

Wharton also referred to comments made last year by Verizon honcho Ivan Seidenberg, reported on by RBR-TVBR, who questioned the dire need for spectrum for a number of reasons. For one thing, he noted that a number of cable companies have been squatting on unused spectrum – perhaps as much as 150 KHz — for about 10-15 years, and said this would be a good place to turn for mobile space.

He also suggested that the technical wizards who are coming up with all the innovations Genachowski loves to tout are also wizards when it comes to miniaturizing, and stated his belief that one of the things they will be able to reduce as time goes on is bandwidth consumption for a given application.

Seidenberg came out leaving broadcast television as is. “My reaction is going to surprise you. I don’t think the FCC should tinker with this. I think the market’s going to settle this. So in the long term, if we can’t show that we have applications and services to utilize that spectrum better than the broadcasters, then the broadcasters will keep the spectrum.”

RBR-TVBR observation: We have consistently stated our belief that repurposing spectrum in the television band for mobile broadband will be a difficult, time-consuming process. We also contend that spectrum is the real estate of the media, and any television broadcaster who wishes to have a future must do two things: (A) Hang on to the spectrum they have, and (B) develop it. If you have no plans to take step B, you might as well participate in an auction, if it ever comes to pass and includes a pay-off for the spectrum-relinquishing broadcasters. But if you do that, you may well be kissing the future good-bye.

We would also like to say that we are pleased that Genachowski is pleased about the successful television transition to digital. We don’t think it a stretch to say that it was the biggest mass technological communications conversion in US history, which despite being government mandated relied heavily on broadcasters’ own private resources. And despite ominous predictions of doom and gloom from the corridors of The Capitol and FCC headquarters, it was pulled off with stunning success, and a bare minimum of glitches.

The digital conversion was many years in the making, but it’s only been a year-and-a-half since its execution. Mr. Genachowski, unlike the FCC, broadcasters must find a way to monetize their experiments. They don’t get the money from the government. Broadcasters are working on making the best use of digital technology, but time has been short, and in the current economy, cash has also been short. So rather than looking at television spectrum as a starving wolf looks at a t-bone steak, how about just giving broadcasters a little time to figure out how they can do better what they alone already do better than any other electronic medium – serving the public interest of their local communities.