Broadcasters biting back on spectrum

The industry’s D.C. battles used to be over who controls the airwaves. Now they’re over who’s hoarding them.

The issue is spectrum, or the space that the fast-growing wireless industries need to grow and thrive in the broadband future. The problem is that there is a finite amount available, and when FCC chairman Julius Genachowski proposed a solution that includes reallocating some 120 MHz held by over-the-air stations, the concept didn’t sit too well with broadcasters.

Even with legislative proposals to reallocate spectrum with voluntary incentive auctions, in which stations would be compensated for giving up their space, the broadcast lobby is skeptical of just how “voluntary” it will be. Instead, they are turning the tables and questioning whether wireless and other firms are making efficient use of their own spectrum — specifically citing Dish Network and Time Warner Cable as examples of so called airwave squatting.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters, recently wrote on the lobby’s blog, “God forbid that there would be a serious and thorough review of whether companies that were given or bought spectrum are actually following through on timetables and promises to deploy it. After all, that would not fit into their neat little ‘spectrum crisis’ tale that they’re foisting on Congress.”

Broadcasters challenge the notion that they themselves have too much spectrum, pointing to the need for spectrum space to prevent interference in urban areas and to stations’ plans to deploy their own mobile TV services.

The Consumer Electronics Assn., among the groups supportive of the idea of “incentive auctions,” dismisses the NAB’s rhetoric as an effort to confuse Congress. Wireless businesses and other companies “paid large amounts for thin slices of spectrum” while broadcasters “who did not pay for broad swathes of the most desirable spectrum” are “sitting on underused spectrum loaned to them by the government.”

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) plans to hold spectrum hearings later this month via the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, which he chairs. But suspicion may still be the order of the day. Walden, too, is a former broadcaster.


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