Washington cage match over television spectrum (video)


Wireless companies are dead set on moving into the swathe of spectrum currently used by broadcast television, and although broadcasters are resigned to the prospect of giving at least some ground, the terms are far from settled and the battle rages. In the background, like the insistent cello music in the “Jaws” soundtrack, are the spinning wheels of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is more seemingly interested in finding money than writing good legislation.

Broadcasters have come together to form the Future of Television Coalition. Its mission statement is simple: “The Coalition supports the evolution of broadcast television and its integration with other technologies and across many platforms. Our members work together to advance public policy initiatives that allow broadcasters to continue to rigorously innovate and invest to better serve consumers.”

Founding members of the Coalition include Antennas Direct, Bounce TV, The Center for Asian American Media, County Executives of America, The Country Network, Digitenna, DLT Entertainment Limited, LATV Networks & American Latino Syndication, Luken Communications, MHz Networks, Native American Public Telecommunications, New York Television Festival, Open Mobile Video Coalition, Pacific Islanders in Communications, Qubo, This TV and Vme Media.

“The Coalition represents a broad range of interests invested in strengthening broadcasters’ ability to deliver high-quality local news, weather, sports and emergency information,” said NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith. “We anticipate the organization will grow considerably over time as broadcasting evolves onto new mobile platforms and local TV stations continue to expand programming choices.”

The Consumer Electronics Association welcomed FOTV, sort of. CEA President/CEO Gary Shapiro said he welcomed FOTV’s input, while stating that only 10% of television viewing is off-air. “As the broadcasters have urged, the incentive spectrum auctions proposals in Congress are entirely voluntary and would not preclude any new use of broadcast spectrum, such as mobile digital TV or wireless Internet services. Although broadcasters have never paid for the public spectrum they occupy, we believe the proposals will generously compensate the broadcasters who choose to participate in auctions. The incentive auctions are about the future, and broadcasters will choose whether they participate in the auctions that will benefit the majority of Americans who want and need wireless broadband.”

Broadcasters would disagree that the airwaves are provided to them free of charge; and broadcasters do not share Shapiro’s confidence that incentive auctions will be truly voluntary, that they will be compensated for costs incurred due to the process, and that the channel repacking is even a workable proposition in a number of key DMAs.

Jot Carpenter, an executive at wireless organization CTIA, actually threw fuel on the fire when he commented on FOTV. He said, “When you have to form a coalition to talk about your future, perhaps it suggests you don’t have one.”

That drew the ire of broadcasters, particularly entrepreneurial programming operations that are just beginning to use digital multicasting to bring diverse niche programming to viewers over the air. Bounce TV is the highest profile of these groups.

Another, Soul of the South Network, is a minority-owned network to be that is getting ready to kick off operations ready to kick off in 2012, serving the large African American population resident in the South.
Soul of the South CEO Edwin V. Avent has responded, “CTIA’s comment demeans the efforts of men and women at Soul of the South and other new niche multicast DTV networks who are working tirelessly to use digital television technology to empower our audiences. It is unfortunate that CTIA would mock these efforts. Our broadcast network – which launches in the spring — will be a free news and entertainment service using broadcast airwaves to educate and enlighten a segment of society that is too often ignored. CTIA’s grab for TV airwaves comes at a price, and that price is fewer jobs for minorities, a less pluralistic society, an increase in the digital divide, and higher phone bills for all consumers.”

Companies that have been pushing for the right to operate unlicensed devices in the white spaces between television station channels are also part of the mix – and with broadcasters wondering if there will be room for all licensed stations after repacking is executed, the prospects for unlicensed devices do not look good.
Television Group Sinclair recently repeated the oft-heard call for a full spectrum inventory before going ahead with any incentive auctions. “Spectrum auctions would cause big pain for very little gain,” said Mark Aitken, Vice President of Advanced Technology for Sinclair.  “Forty-six million Americans rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasting.  It is the only reliable medium everyone uses during catastrophes when the cable goes out and the satellite dishes have blown off roofs. America cannot get this back after it is sold.  Congress should postpone any auction considerations until after a thorough spectrum audit is completed.”

CEA has countered that projected sales of consumer electronics during the holiday gift-giving season is reason to proceed with auctions, claiming the projections demonstrate the need for addition spectrum to devote to wireless.

At least one gift might be popular – high definition antennas. FOTV member Antenna Direct has been giving them away – and finding grateful citizens who are finding it more difficult to justify an MVPD subscription in the current economy and also find their viewing needs met satisfactorily by the programming available on free over-the-air television.

Check out this report on the Antenna Direct initiative: