The Federal Communications Commission commissioners voted 5-0 Tuesday to launch what chairman Julius Genachowski suggested would be a landmark decision to free up TV spectrum for wireless broadband.
While the other commissioners spent some of their time praising broadcasters and cautioning that their public- interest benefit should not be lost in the move to free up spectrum, Genachowski focused more on the need for avoiding a spectrum crunch, the importance of Congress passing legislation to compensate broadcasters for giving up spectrum and the importance of moving swiftly to institute the voted-on changes if Congress does pass that law.
The FCC voted to change its service rules for the TV band to make fixed and mobile service co-primary users along with UHF and VHF TV stations. It also proposed rules to allow for channel sharing, so that more than one TV station could share a 6 Mhz channel and free up one or more channels for wireless broadband. Currently, channel sharing is not allowed under FCC rules.
Channel sharers would each retain must-carry rights on cable and DBS, the commission said, "neither increasing nor decreasing carriage rights on any distribution system."
One of the suggestions has been for the FCC to grant must-carry rights to the programming on stations that gave up their spectrum allocation entirely.
Finally, the commission said it would adjust the power levels on VHF and look for other ways to boost its reception capabilities. That would pave the way for moving broadcasters from UHF allocations, which are more conducive to DTV transmissions than VHF, the reverse of the analog pecking order.
The commissioners also unanimously adopted changes to its rules to promote more testing of flexible spectrum use and dynamic-use technologies in the broadcast band, and ask more questions about what more it could do to encourage research and development into such experimentation and innovation.
Those include more experimental testing opportunities for universities, research facilities and healthcare organizations, potentially tapping into underused spectrum, either geographically or at certain times of day.
All those steps are part of the FCC's plan to recover up to 120 MHz of spectrum to deal with what the chairman reiterated Tuesday was a looming spectrum crunch.
Beginning with FCC ommissioner Michael Copps, the shout-outs to broadcasting--even as the agency was voting to open up the entire broadcast band to mobile and fixed broadband use--came thick and fast. Copps said that he approached the FCC's notice of proposed rulemaking on spectrum with "cautious optimism." The "caution" part was that he was not sure that that either legislative action or economic conditions would allow for the FCC to adopt the "full range" of spectrum proposals in the National Broadband Plan. But it was also because he said he was "mightily interested" in the future of broadcasting and the value of free-over-the-air TV to the nation. Copps used the opportunity to encourage more broadcasters to use their DTV allocations for public interest multicasting. He said that that not nearly enough broadcaster had done so, and that if more of them had, he said he would have had "little interest" in contemplating other uses of the broadcast spectrum.
Copps said the FCC would have to balance the needs of broadcast and broadband. He said there was general consensus that more spectrum was needed for broadband, but that he was not sure that auctioning off massive amounts of it to wireless would not necessarily result in better service or prices.
Senior Republican Robert McDowell said he remained mindful of the public interest benefits that broadcasters deliver and said whatever the FCC does must leave incumbent broadcasters with viable opportunities to do their own experimenting with a mix of new services "including traditional broadcast service."
He said he had not reached any conclusion about the approach of channel sharing, and said the commission needed to understand the "full ramifications" of moving broadcasters from the UHF to VHF band.
Genachowski focused on the spectrum broadcasters weren't making use of. He said that that while some broadcasters had seixed the opportunity to use their DTV spectrum for other uses like mobile DTV, others had not. He likened them to trains with a fixed number of boxcars but with many boxcars empty. The need for that spectrum was too great for it to be used inefficiently. He also said the fact that less than 10% of broadcast TV is actually viewed over the air was another inefficiency.
He called the vote to share channels, increase flexibility and adjust power important groundwork for incentive auctions, which he called on Congress to pass and suggesting time was of the essence.