Full court press on TV spectrum hits the Hill


CEA and CTIA are composing letters, commissioning surveys and writing white papers. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is giving speeches at NAB 2011 in Las Vegas. And various individuals are testifying on Capitol Hill. They all have the same objective – the capture of 120 MHz worth of television spectrum to repurpose for wireless broadband. On the Hill, WGAL-TV Chief Engineer Bob Good mounted a defense.

The venue was a hearing held by the House Communications Subcommittee under the gavel of Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR).

Representatives from the wireless and tech sector were all in agreement that a spectrum crunch is coming, and all had their eyes on television spectrum, and cited the same facts that CEA and CTIA have been putting out in recent days. A big selling point is the estimate of benefit to the US Treasury of an incentive auction. The estimates run in excess of $30B.

Good just came through the DTV transition, and said the experiences of broadcasters in pulling off that feat suggest that a major repacking of channels into a smaller spectrum space poses numerous problems.

For example, his station has not yet and he said likely never will replicate its original pre-DTV coverage area. It incurred a great deal of expense both before and after the transition trying to make it work, and its viewers have incurred expense getting the right kind of antenna to get the signal off-air.

For one thing, the FCC’s decision to allow unlicensed devices in the white spaces between channels poses a problem when one considers a mass migration of television stations.

He also noted the possibility of a domino effect if repacking is attempted. When one channel moves, it may create an interference problem with a station in a neighboring market, and solving that second station’s problem may create a third problem in yet another market, and so on.

Ed Markey (D-MA) had an exchange with Good. He suggested that if legislators and the FCC come up with a spectrum reclamation program that causes no harm to broadcasters, it seemed like Good was OK with it.
Good told Ed Markey that yes, broadcasters have no problem with a voluntary process, but he sees the potential for major problems if a major station repacking project is to be undertaken – major problems that nobody seems to have addressed.

Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) expressed concerns that the vital services provided by local broadcasters during an emergency might be compromised if their signals are changed. She cited specifically the response of television during Tennessee’s flooding in May 2010. Good agreed that this type of service is an important part of the mission of broadcasters, and added that television should be seen as part of the broadband solution, not as something that needs to be moved.
He added that there are lot of problems associated with a channel move, some of which his station is still grappling with two years after the DTV transition.

Much of the hearing was devoted to upgrading the communications capabilities of public safety and first responder organizations, and finding them the spectrum they need.

Here are brief testimony summaries from the six witnesses.

* The Hon. Slade Gorton, Former U.S. Senator, Member of the 9/11 Commission: Discussed public safety aspect.of spectrum policy

* Deputy Chief Charles Dowd, Commanding Officer, Communications Division, New York Police Department: Discussed public safety aspect of spectrum policy

* Coleman Bazelon, Principal, The Brattle Group. Wireless broadband use is increasing and more spectrum will be needed. All spectrum should be examined with use value in mind, and higher value applications should be licensed. Advocates incentive auction to clear 120 MHz of television spectrum.  Expects $35B+ in auction proceeds.

* Mary Dillon, President and CEO, U.S. Cellular: Critical need for additional spectrum for mobile, promote public safety, change the rules to make best possible use of spectrum. Act now, and give FCC the authority to kick off incentive auctions.

* Robert Good, Chief Engineer, WGAL-TV: Broadcasters just gave up 108 MHz of spectrum during the DTV transition. Local is the key source for local news and information, particularly during emergencies. Consequences of taking away 20 channels are not simple, will create domino effect from market to market. Many stations in the DTV transition lost service area, still hasn’t replicated pre-DTV contour. Repacking will be difficult, with less room and with unlicensed devices lurking in white areas as recently authorized by the FCC.

* Julius Knapp, Chief, Office of Engineering and Technology, Federal Communications Commission: FCC moving ahead with aggressive program to pave the way for mobile broadband. TV and mobile satellite bands are seen as best places to acquire spectrum. Broadcasters forced to move would be fully reimbursed, and none would be compelled to go from UHF to VHF unless they volunteer to do so.

* Peter Pitsch, Executive Director, Communications Policy and Associate Gen. Counsel
Intel Corp.: US is facing severe spectrum shortage, incentive auctions will cure the problem. Auction participation would be voluntary, repacking not – the latter would give broadcasters veto power over the entire process and has never been in the mix.

Walden ended the hearing by saying this is the first of many on a complex topic. He said he wants to do it once, and get it right.