FCC to Hill: Imperative To Seize Spectrum-Freeing Opportunity

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Julius Knapp, chief of the Federal Communicastions Commission's Office of Engineering & Technology, says the nation must "seize every opportunity to free up spectrum for mobile broadband."

That is according to a copy of his prepared testimony for an April 12 hearing on spectrum issues in the House Communications Subcommittee. The hearing is scheduled for about the same time that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to be telling a crowd of thousands of broadcasters at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas how that effort can be a win-win for broadband and broadcasting.

According to a copy of Knapp's prepared testimony, he plans to tell the legislators the FCC supports ensuring a "healthy and robust" broadcasting industry. He says the incentive auctions that Congress will need to approve before broadcasters can be compensating for giving up spectrum will be voluntary and will not come at broadcasters' expense. But the FCC's definition of voluntary includes limiting the number of stations that would have to switch frequencies, and to "limit" loss of service.

The imperative in the FCC's seizure of the moment, if not the spectrum (the FCC says it remains a "voluntary" plan, is the spectrum "crunch," and Knapp counted the ways the FCC loves broadband, punctuated with loads of stats on app use and tablet and smartphone sales and online shopping. One example: downloaded mobile apps exploded from 300 million in 2009 to 15 billion in 2010. Then there were the pubic interest uses for broadband of remote healthcare monitoring, energy, education, entertainment and more.

"While realignment of some broadcast stations will be necessary to ensure efficient use of the spectrum freed up in an incentive auction," the FCC concedes, "our proposal seeks to limit the number of stations that would need to switch frequencies as part of the realignment process." To some broadcaster that "need" already sounds like involuntary, but the FCC points out that even though they move frequencies, they can maintain the same dial position and would get paid for their troubles.

"For those that do [need to switch], we would work to limit any loss of service to over-the-air television
viewers and would fully reimburse them for any costs associated with relocating," says Knapp. "No stations would be required to move from the UHF band to the VHF band unless they freely chose to do so in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds," he added. That has been a concern of broadcasters given that the VHF band is not as effective for DTV transmissions as UHF, though the FCC has promised to try to improve VHF reception.

The FCC plan is also prefaced on the confidence that enough broadcasters will be willing to take them money and move or share so that no one will be required to move. Last week, a group of economists calling for incentive auctions suggested that they thought in a marketplace negotiation, there would be some price point at which broadcasters would be willing to sell out, so that from an economic standpoint it would wind up being voluntary.

And while Knapp talks up broadcasting toward the end of his prepared remarks, the top half is all mobile broadband, which he says probably the most vital sector to the growth of the economy and jobs.

He also asserts that the FCC has completed a baseline spectrum inventory, including "how non-Federal spectrum is currently being used. But broadcasters want more. In an interview with, National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith "respectfully suggested" [he is a former Senator] that the FCC's baseline inventory is insufficient, and what was needed was "an in-depth understanding of who has spectrum and what they're using it for."

Genachowski has said he supported exploring ways to conduct a more exhaustive inventory, but suggested drilling down on use might not be the way to go.

In a letter to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Communications Subcommittee Genachowski said he supported her suggestion of exploring ways to "more exhaustively" inventory spectrum, including use, but said measuring actual use was not necessary to identify "primary opportunities for unleashing additional commercial spectrum." He also said the FCC faced the challenge of determining whether a use study was worth the tens of millions of dollars and several years it would take to complete.

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