The Federal Communications Commission next month will take the first big steps toward freeing up broadcast and other spectrum for wireless broadband, chairman Julius Genachowski plans to announce at a spectrum "summit" at the agency Thursday.
The FCC will release a new analysis of the spectrum crisis, and will try to encourage some broadcasters to move off some of their spectrum and others to move into the VHF band.
But Genachowski made a point of including broadcasters in his vision of that mobile future, telling Multichannel News that they can still be leaders in a broadband revolution. Some, however, will be expected to do that while sharing channels and moving from the UHF to the VHF dial.
At its November 30 public meeting, the chairman will seek public comment on proposed new rules to help tee up that spectrum search-and-recovery mission if Congress gives it the AOK.
"What the commission is considering in November will lay the groundwork for incentive auctions if Congress decides to act," the chairman told MCN in an interview. "We can move as quickly as possible so that there does not need to be a delay between any congressional action and moving forward on freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband."
The FCC could auction the spectrum without congressional approval, and can lay that technical groundwork for recovery incentive auctions or not. But if it is to give a percentage of the proceeds to broadcasters as incentive to give up spectrum--and broadcasters will almost surely not volunteer to give up spectrum for nothing--Congress has to approve that outlay from the treasury.
According to the FCC, results from a recent analysis indicate that there will be a 300 MHz spectrum shortage over the next five years (the commission is trying to free up 500 MHz). "Subscriptions to mobile data services have increased by 40 percent in the latest six-month period of FCC reporting, and the average amount of data used per mobile device has increased by over four times during the last five quarters (Q1 2009 through Q2 2010)," the FCC said
In his interview with MCN, Genachowski outlined the proposed rulemakings. Primarily, and as already signaled in the broadband plan, the commission will have to change rules on the allocation of the broadcast spectrum to allow mobile broadband use, as well as change the rules to allow for channel-sharing by broadcasters. "Those are barriers we need to lift," Genachowski said.
The FCC will also propose finding ways to improve DTV reception on the VHF band (chs. 2-13) so more broadcasters can be moved there and out of the UHF band (14-51), which is better suited than UHF for wireless broadband. Of course, it is also better suited to DTV broadcasts, as broadcasters found during the DTV transition. That is why the FCC needs to find ways to make it more attractive. "UHF has characteristics that are stronger for mobile broadband," said Genachowski, "and we want to look at proposals to improve VHF so it is more desirable for digital broadcasting, and so that we can end up with as much UHF spectrum as possible released for mobile broadband and broadcasters being very comfortable with VHF."
Also being teed up are notices to expand experimental licensing, which Genachowski said have proven to be "very successful." He cited the advent of cars with screens to provide views of what is behind them when they are backing up. "That actually requires spectrum, and during its development there was an FCC experimental license that accelerated [no pun intended] its development.
He said given all the innovation that can and happen around spectrum, allowing more experimentation can help move ideas from the lab to real-world testing. "That will also help the FCC make decisions faster," he said, "because it gets on-the-ground experience with interference issues."
A third notice will look at accelerating "opportunistic uses" like secondary market leasing for unused or underused spectrum. That will not be limited to the broadcast band, according to Genachowski.
The summary of the FCC's proposals talks again about the win-win-win nature of incentive auctions, identifying the broadcasters win as a capital infusion. Asked whether that was all broadcasters would be getting out of the deal, the chairman said it was not.
"I think broadcasters are in a strong position by virtue of their experience with spectrum to develop breakthrough innovations that can be an important part of our mobile future. So, all of the things that we do, including experimental licensing, that encourage spectrum-related innovation creates opportunities for broadcasters, who are real spectrum experts, to develop new products and new services, and not only participate in and help lead the mobile broadband revolution," he said.
During the interview, Genachowski said the FCC is releasing data Thursday that shows the increasingly urgent need to free up spectrum. He said that data shows a spectrum deficit hitting 300 MHz in the next five years, which means consumers will start having "real challenges" taking advantage of mobile broadband. The spectrum summit is intended to accelerate progress on tackling spectrum challenges and seizing the opportunities."
"NAB looks forward to working with policymakers to ensure that efficient spectrum deployment matches actual spectrum demand, and that America's leadership in providing the finest free and local broadcasting system in the world is not compromised," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton.