Brawling over broadband

NAB: 'The FCC is trying to drive TV stations out of business'

The rapid growth of cellphone networks and wireless Internet has the U.S. headed for a spectrum squeeze. So the FCC developed the National Broadband Plan, which proposes that broadcasters release spectrum for broadband use over the next 10 years.

That means just 10 months after the transition to digital television, the Feds are asking broadcasters to make another major technical transition — and the National Assn. of Broadcasters is none too happy about it.

“What the FCC is trying to do is drive TV stations out of business,” NAB exec veep Dennis Wharton says.

Wharton points out broadcasters have already given up UHF channels 52-69, and now are asked to surrender channels 31-51. “This will lead to damage,” he says.

Wharton’s notion that the FCC has it in for the broadcast business isn’t just paranoia. During a recent program at Columbia Business School, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt stated he and other FCC commissioners undermined the DTV transition, claiming it benefited only “100,000” people.

“Those people would have been better off getting a voucher for broadband internet systems,” said Hundt. “But some felt that we had to keep on this path (of broadcast television.)”

So the FCC is looking at other paths. What does that mean for the broadcasters who’ll have to trek down those paths?

Among the ideas contemplated in the FCC plan: double up on digital TV channels, sell off underutilized chunks of spectrum, give back some channels altogether, and if those choices don’t work out, consider switching from large antennas to arrays of smaller, cellular antennas that send out signals to small neighborhoods.

These spell another round of extensive broadcast equipment upgrades. And, as with the DTV conversion, consumers will have to modify their receiving systems.

“A lot of reconfiguration will be needed, and it’s going to require a huge investment,” says Kamy Merithew, vice president of marketing for Wegener, which makes equipment for satcasting and IPTV.

“If this had been contemplated before the DTV conversion, it could have been all rolled into one. It’s now a harder sell. From a consumer standpoint you will have to reposition antennas and send in your DTV receiving box to be reconfigured,” says Merithew, who will speak Monday at the NAB Show on “Web vs TV: Conflict or Convergence.”

Some of the spectrum broadcasters control isn’t busy today, but broadcasters would like to retain those “white spaces” for innovations such as 3D and mobile broadcasting.

Doubling up on a single DTV channel would mean some tough negotiations between competitors in local markets.

“Sharing a 6MHz TV channel would be better described as trying to park two different cars in the same parking spot at the same time,” CBS Studios supervising engineer Tim Holly says.

One answer: Combine the benefits of broadband and broadcast. “We can align broadcast to handle video,” says Wharton. “There’s a limited capacity of cellphone providers to transmit video. They can offload video to broadcasters.”

Agrees Jeff Burke, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television director of technology research initiatives: “Broadcast can offer services that have emerged from broadband. The anticipation is that they won’t be able to co-exist peacefully.”

Wharton says the NAB supports a full spectrum inventory and a complete accounting. The future of broadcasting won’t take shape until that’s done.

“There will be a series of congressional hearings and over 40 FCC rule-making negotiations as a result,” says Wharton. “This is the first step in a very long marathon.”

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