Smith: Broadcasters Must Be Part of Broadband Ecosystem

Publish date:
Updated on

Broadcasters are part of the solution to the broadband gap and rural deployment, not the problem.

That is the message from National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith to Congress, according to a copy of his testimony for a House Energy & Commerce Communications Subcommittee hearing Tuesday on two spectrum inventory bills.

"Broadcasting and universal broadband do not represent opposite choices oran 'either-or' proposition for policymakers and the public," he said. Instead, he argued, both are an important part of a communications ecosystem, suggesting it was better for the government to let all flowers bloom rather than pull up broadcasting by the roots and hand it as a bouquet to the wireless industry.

Besides, Smith said broadcasters are already aggregating and sharing their spectrum for wireless broadband.

He pointed to a company called Sezmi, which he says will be introducing a service that "seamlessly blends over-the-air broadcast and broadband video 'options'." He says the company has already negotiated lease agreements with some local broadcasters to "aggregate spectrum in local markets" to deliver video that could "overwhelm a traditional IP network," he argues.

Smith also said that using fixed devices in the TV white spaces--it is mobile unlicensed devices NAB has long opposed--could help deliver broadband to rural areas, as well as for backhaul. "Because the broadcast bands are used less intensively in rural markets, with appropriate technical protections fixed broadband services can operate in this spectrum without undermining consumers' access to free, over-the-air digital television or new mobile DTV services."

Smith said NAB backs the bills because their spectrum inventory "will demonstrate the high efficiency and unparalleled public benefits of the use of spectrum for free, over-the-air broadcasting."

Figures as high as $60 billion have been thrown out for the value of broadcast spectrum if it were re-auctioned, vs. the value being derived from it now. But Smith said that calculation is not just dollars and cents.

"Unlike many commercial wireless services, in the television broadcast service, licensees already operate under a host of regulations to ensure that their use of the spectrum is fully utilized to maximize its total value," he said. "In the broadcasting context, the "total value" is not a strict financial measure, but rather is one that encompasses the broader public policy objectives such as universal service, local journalism and public safety."

He also talked about the couple billion invested in DTV-to-analog converter boxes sold on the assumption they would still have something to convert, in addition to what he called the "many billions" broadcasters spent related to the DTV transition.

"Public policy should reject spectrum reallocation proposals that would strand substantial investments by consumers in receiving equipment and/or leave consumers without access to free broadcast service upon which they regularly rely," he said.

The government should encourage more productive use of spectrum already allocated to wireless, he said, and promote wired alternatives.

He called broadcasting, "the first wireless service ever to substantially reduce its spectrum use while providing additional services." TV uses about 60% of the spectrum it used back in the 1970s. he said, but has improved audio and video quality "four-fold."

In the other corner, Steve Largent, president of CTIA: The Wireless Association, says that the key is getting more spectrum for his members, either from the government, where he says he expects most of the spectrum to be available, or from commercial spectrum from broadcasters and others if that is necessary.

He said the inventory was a place to start and the government would need to act quickly to free up more spectrum given the decade time frame it has taken to reclaim spectrum in the past.

But while the wireless and broadcast industries have appeared to be in a pitched battle over broadcast frequencies, aided by an FCC that touts the need for more spectrum and is contemplating ways to get it back from broadcasters, Largent's written comments were far from provocative.

He talked first about government channels, saying "it is likely that underutilized spectrum currently assigned to the federal government will be a critical source for spectrum that can be repurposed." But he said the inventory "may also identify underutilized non-government spectrum -- whether currently allocated or licensed to broadcasters, satellite providers, or others -- that can be put to a higher and better use as commercial mobile wireless spectrum."

Largent hedged both sides with word choice, saying it was "likely" the government spectrum would be critical, and that it "may" identify unused broadcast spectrum.

He anticipated the calls for the wireless industry to be more efficient with the spectrum it has, but said that wireless carriers could not build their way out of the problem of a real and growing spectrum shortage, particularly with the shift from voice to the bandwidth-demanding data deliver.

And cleverly playing to a general Democratic skepticism of merged media, he argued that without a clear road map to new spectrum, the industry might be driven to consolidate its holdings. "[C]arriers may be motivated to consider consolidation as a means by which to augment their respective spectrum inventories," he said. "While certain mergers might promote efficiency and represent the best way to serve users and shareholders, consolidation should not be the only path by which a carrier in need of additional spectrum can meet consumer demand and grow."