Broadcasters Deny Spectrum Crisis Claims In Study Written by Former FCC Staffer

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The National Association of Broadcasters April 26 issued a study alleging that “insufficient analysis” and “faulty” data led the Federal Communications Commission to make an “overstated assumption” of a nationwide “spectrum crisis” when it released its National Broadband Plan more than a year ago.

The NAB filed the study as part of comments to the commission on proposals to make TV spectrum available at auction for both broadcasting and wireless broadband uses--an initial step necessary for the FCC to conduct voluntary “incentive auctions” of spectrum, in which television broadcasters, who license spectrum through the FCC, could release some of it back to the government in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds.

The study, commissioned by the association and written by Uzoma Onyeije, a former legal adviser to the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau on broadband issues under Chairman Michael Powell from 2003 to 2006, comes as Congress is about to consider legislation that would authorize the agency to hold voluntary incentive auctions of broadcast spectrum.

“The factual basis for the 'spectrum crisis' claim is underwhelming,” Onyeije wrote in the NAB study. “The answer to the fundamental question of how much spectrum mobile carriers need remains uncertain. It appears that the notion of a need for large-scale spectrum reallocation to address a shortage of mobile spectrum is based on questionable assumptions designed to achieve a particular result.”

FCC Anticipates Spectrum 'Deficit' by 2014.

In an October 2010 paper, Mobile Broadband: The Benefits of Additional Spectrum, the FCC predicted that the “spectrum deficit”--what the agency defines as the shortfall of spectrum available for wireless broadband--will reach 300 megahertz by 2014.

CTIA-The Wireless Association and other wireless industry groups estimate that the nation's mobile phone providers will need an additional 800 MHz of spectrum before the decade is up to keep pace with consumer demand for bandwidth-hungry smartphones and tablet computers--a major expansion from the industry's current slice of roughly 500 MHz.

In the National Broadband Plan, the FCC set a goal of freeing up 500 MHz of spectrum for future mobile broadband use within 10 years, 300 MHz within five.

To achieve its goal, the FCC, which manages all commercial spectrum licensed to mobile phone providers, has proposed that 120 of the 500 MHz come from television broadcasters. Another 220 megahertz would come from government holders of spectrum managed by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

In the new NAB study, Onyeije suggests a series of alternatives to what has been referred to as the “spectrum crunch” and the “spectrum crisis,” such as using technology to boost spectral efficiency, like smart antennas and femtocells.

Other broadcasting industry groups agreed, stressing in comments to the agency that the FCC's proposals, taken together, could stunt the industry's plans to make more innovative use of the spectrum, such as transmitting high-definition signals, “multicasting” multiple channels, and delivering mobile TV to phones, laptops, and tablet computers.

“Neither the National Broadband Plan nor the NPRM explains why the FCC believes that wireless carriers should be the favored providers of mobile video services going forward,” Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. wrote in comments filed April 25. “The NPRM reflects the unstated and simplistic assumption that the mobile services ecosystem we recognize today--those offered as paid services by wireless carriers--is the ideal service delivery model for all mobile services. It is probably true that the majority of mobile video consumption--as opposed to stationary and nomadic use that may nonetheless be provided via some wireless service--is delivered over cellular networks by mobile voice and data services providers today. But we are in the very earliest phases of a trend that will be evolving for many years to come and probably for decades.”

Sinclair noted, for example, that in the last few years people have consumed mobile video services on “carrier-supplied devices,” served by “carrier-owned networks” on a “pay-to-play” basis. “That is not the only way to provide mobile video services,” Sinclair said.

Sinclair urged the FCC against, among other things, policies that would make Americans “even more reliant on a handful of extremely large national providers that are consolidating rapidly.”

Broadcasters Innovating Too, Groups Say.

Since the digital television transition, broadcasters have greatly expanded the use of their digital bit streams to provide multicast channels and mobile DTV services more efficiently. In fact, according to the Open Mobile Video Coalition, more than 70 stations have already begun offering mobile DTV services.

“This trend is going to continue given that mobile DTV solves the 'one-to-one communications architecture' capacity challenges of wireless broadband because mobile DTV, which relies on an efficient one-to-many video broadcast transmission system, can meet consumer demand while actually freeing up network capacity for innovation and investment in other wireless broadband applications and services,” the Named State Broadcasters Association wrote in April 25 comments. “The commission should recognize that advancing any proposals that may diminish the ability of television broadcasters to provide mobile DTV to consumers would be contrary to 'preserving the free, over-the-air broadcast television service and maintaining the diversity of local voices and important informational and entertainment benefits it provides the American public.' ”

As part of the FCC's rulemaking, the agency is proposing to allow two or more television stations to share a single 6 megahertz channel--the current allocation for one full-power TV station license. With analog broadcasting, only one television channel used 6 MHz of spectrum. Since television stations now broadcast in digital, those same 6 MHz of spectrum can now be used by two or more channels. The basic idea behind channel sharing is to free up one or more of the original channels for use by mobile broadband services.

Along these lines, the agency's NPRM solicited comment on steps to improve digital TV reception in the VHF bands in an effort to make these bands more attractive for broadcasters to use and voluntarily relocate to, ostensibly making more UHF spectrum available for an incentive auction. (Broadcast spectrum is generally divided into VHF--channels 2-13--and UHF--channels 14-51--frequencies, and UHF frequencies are considered far better suited for mobile broadband than VHF frequencies.)

The Local Television Broadcasters association commented that the proposals “lack any showing that they can be accomplished without service loss and the creation of interference, either of which will cause certain and irreparable harm to television broadcasters and viewers.”

“The ensuing reallocation and 'repack' [to squeeze remaining TV stations into a smaller frequency band] are highly disruptive mechanisms, involving excessive government intervention that is an unnecessary solution to a spectrum 'crisis' that does not exist,” the Local Television Broadcasters said.

Wireless Industry Presses for Incentive Auctions.

In comments supporting the FCC's efforts, the Consumer Electronics Association noted that “only a small percentage” of the nation's broadcast stations would need to participate in a voluntary incentive auction to address the spectrum shortage.

“An incentive auction allows broadcasters themselves to decide what to do with their license by designing a mechanism to repurpose spectrum on a voluntary, market-based system,” CEA noted in comments filed April 25.

CTIA, in its comments, reiterated that it “strongly supports” the proposals in the NPRM, calling them “excellent initial steps in providing the framework for incentive auctions.”

Several industry groups issued statements April 26 refuting the NAB study, including Mobile Future, which said the association has put itself on the “wrong side of science, economics, technology, and history.”

“While NAB might choose to ignore the realities of today's consumer demands, American wireless consumers are staring down a spectrum shortage,” Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, said in a statement April 26. “As the FCC, 112 leading economists and wireless technology experts have all explained in great detail, a spectrum crunch is looming and the most efficient way to meet growing consumer demand and deliver cutting-edge, innovative services to consumers is to move forward with incentive auctions to get more wireless spectrum to the marketplace as soon as possible.”

CEA and CTIA also published a joint blog post in an attempt to counter assertions made in the NAB study.

The industry groups noted, for starters, that the spectral efficiency techniques cited in the NAB study have been long known, long used or fully evaluated by wireless carriers.

“Americans will purchase more than 150 million new wireless devices--including more than 70 million smartphones--in 2011 alone, and every one of those devices needs spectrum to function,” CEA and CTIA wrote. “Meanwhile, the nation's 1,600 or so commercial TV stations collectively hold vast stores of underused spectrum and, rather than allowing that spectrum to provide service to the 150 million new wireless devices consumers are adding this year, these TV stations are hoarding spectrum to instead serve fewer than 10 million American households.”

CEA and CTIA claim the study ignores the fact that the underlying approach of the FCC's spectrum policy reforms is to extend spectrum efficiency techniques to TV broadcasting--an industry populated by tall towers, high power and mileage separations that leaves spectrum “unnecessarily” idled.

“Efficient re-allocation of underused TV spectrum to alleviate the broadband spectrum shortage is logical and necessary,” CEA and CTIA wrote.

While broadcasters disagree, the FCC claims the spectrum that is currently allocated for broadcast TV is either not being used efficiently or not being used at all. Roughly 300 MHz of spectrum has been set aside for broadcast TV. According to FCC analysis, in markets with fewer than 1 million people, only 36 MHz are typically used for broadcasting. In cities with more than 1 million people, on average about 100 MHz are used.

By Paul Barbagallo

Comments filed in FCC docket 10-235 can be found at