News

FCC: We Want To Save Free TV

1/19/2010 2:00 AM Eastern

Broadcasters have been lobbying hard against what they see as a spectrum grab by the Federal Communications Commission in favor of wireless broadband, a proposal they say threatens their business model and even their very existence.

Phil Bellaria, the lead staff member developing the FCC’s spectrum-reclamation plan, told Multichannel News that broadcasters have been arguing against a worst-case scenario that is no longer on the table, if it was ever considered. That scenario — which would have meant broadcasters no longer having the bandwidth to broadcast in HD (or do mobile TV) — never got past the discussion stage, he said, after the FCC got the message about the value of high-definition programming.

Bellaria, a former executive at MSO Charter Communications who is director of scenario planning for the FCC’s broadband team, said that the plan currently being prepared for vetting by the agency’s commissioners would be voluntary and would not require any broadcaster to sell its spectrum to the government or give up the ability to transmit HDTV, multicast signals or mobile TV — at least initially. The FCC may have to revisit the spectrum issue, though, depending on demand, he said.

For broadcasters that do decide to clear their spectrum in exchange for compensation (stations can’t sell spectrum because they don’t own it), Bellaria is looking for late next year to get the process going.

The plan anticipates paying broadcasters to clear the spectrum, but Congress would have to approve any compensation. Such a recommendation would be part of the proposal.

Bellaria said that suggestions by broadcasters that the FCC or special interests were trying to take TV stations’ spectrum were off the mark. In fact, he said that during the process of talking to stakeholders, the scenarios were narrowed down. And one option would give broadcasters flexibility while still preserving free, over-the-air TV, said Bellaria, adding that is a key FCC goal.

“The reality is that we are not trying to take spectrum from any individual broadcaster unless that broadcaster chooses to do it, but there are ways to be more efficient with the overall allocation of spectrum for broadcasting, just as there was with the digital transition,” he said. “It is really about how we use spectrum more efficiently.

“I think that broadcasters have pitched this as the FCC or special interests trying to take spectrum from them. The reality is that we are not trying to take spectrum from any individual broadcaster unless that broadcaster chooses to do it.”

The FCC was looking to get its side of the story out last week as the days dwindle down for the plan, though the deadline has been extended by one month to March 17.

The National Association of Broadcasters has met with FCC broadband-team members to make the case for the value of stations’ spectrum, including the importance of HD programming in hammering out the retransmission-consent deals that are increasingly important to broadcasters’ economic health. It has also been running TV spots suggesting the government could be pulling the plug on free TV.

Those ads were prompted not only by talks between the FCC and broadcasters, but also by pitches from wireless and technology companies urging the FCC buy out all broadcast-TV licenses and turn over all the spectrum to wireless broadband.

The NAB had no comment on Bellaria’s scenario, but a couple of veteran broadcasters in Las Vegas for the CES show last week signaled they thought the FCC was getting the message about the value of mobile DTV as part of a broadband plan.

Samsung vice president John Godfrey said he believes the FCC is “taking a comprehensive look” at the overall spectrum picture and that the Commission understands the different bandwidth considerations between sending video through “unicast,” or one-to-one, distribution systems like wireless broadband and “multicast,” or one-to-many, systems like mobile DTV.

Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, has been meeting with FCC engineers to explain the advantages of mobile DTV in delivering live video to the mobile masses. Aitken said he thinks the FCC has a “core understanding” of the inherent challenges of providing popular live content through cellular networks, but said he won’t feel comfortable those realities have been addressed in the broadband plan until it becomes public.

“Tell us what the plan is, and we’ll work with you,” said Aitken.

Aitken cautioned that there “isn’t one solution” to the spectrum crisis. For example, using a distributed transmission system with multiple low-power transmitters for digital TV instead of the single-transmitter “big stick” model — as the Consumer Electronics Association and CTIA-The Wireless Association have suggested to the FCC as a way to free up spectrum — might work in some areas but wouldn’t in others, said Aitken.

Aitken said that one might free up 8 or 10 Megahertz of spectrum in rural areas like Nebraska, but clearing that amount of spectrum in a congested market like New York was unlikely. He also noted that the same markets where it would be unlikely to free up spectrum by overhauling the broadcast system tend to be markets where broadcasters are serving the greatest population density.

“Six Megahertz in New York City is pretty damn efficient,” noted Aitken. “And those are the kinds of places where you’re least likely to free up spectrum.”

Bellaria said the FCC continues to explore multiple options for the broadcasters who remain on their spectrum, including DTS or a “cellularized” broadcast architecture, to gain efficiencies within the broadcast-TV band.

Broadcasting & Cable technology editor Glen Dickson contributed to this story.