Broadcasters OK with genuinely voluntary spectrum auctions


Many, probably most television station operators have no intention to go out of business, and they have every intention of maximizing their allotted spectrum to that end. However, if there are broadcasters out there who would be willing to give up spectrum to repurpose for other wireless applications, there are no objections as long as nonparticipating broadcasters emerge from the process intact and unharmed.

On the plus side for broadcasters was the fact that members of both parties speaking at a House Communications Subcommittee meeting on spectrum auctions stated that broadcasters must be protected in any process that is adopted. Lee Terry (R-NE) and Henry Waxman (D-CA) were just two who said as much.

Todd Schurz of Schurz Communications spelled out the safeguards broadcasters want instituted to protect them as the process moves forward. He said it is understood that some channel repacking will be necessary, but said that no non-participating station should be forced to an inferior slice of spectrum, that no consumer should lose access  to any broadcast service, that broadcasters suffer no interference from other spectrum applications, and that broadcasters are held completely harmless from any costs associated with moving to a new channel. He also noted that broadcasters just dealt with the disruption of the DTV transition only two years ago, and gave back spectrum at that time, and questioned the fairness of yet another disruptive process and giveback within such a short period of time.

Bert Ellis of Titan Broadcasting Management said his company was focused on moving into the mobile space, and stated his belief that a mandate for the inclusion of a broadcast chip in mobile devices would benefit all parties. Consumers, in particular, would have access not only to broadcast entertainment and information programming – such a system would create the basis for a nationwide emergency communications network.

Under questioning from Subcommittee Chair Greg Walden (R-OR), Schurz indicated just how important the full 6 MHz of space is to broadcasters and their viewers. He said that the use of digital side channels was particularly important on the company’s Tornado Alley stations, where there is constant interest in weather conditions and where his company serves that interest. He said that like Ellis’s company, his is working on getting mobile television going, and also noted the importance of delivering high definition programming.

Qualcomm’s Dean Brenner said that his company is always looking to create devices which make more efficient use of spectrum, but said it was impossible to even come close to addressing the anticipated needs of the immediate future in this manner.

Nobody had a problem with undertaking a comprehensive spectrum inventory that also looked at how chunks of spectrum are being used. However, broadcasters wanted them to be done ahead of any decision on auctions; the others on the panel – which also included Christopher Guttman-McCabe from CTIA, former FCC economist Michelle Connolly and Harold Feld from watchdog Public Knowledge – felt that the auction process must move ahead without an inventory contingency.

In fact, the difference of opinion here was starkly evidenced when Ellis said it could be done in a weekend and Connolly said it could take years. Asked about that wide gulf of opinion, Connolly got the biggest laugh of the day by suggesting that Ellis has obviously never worked for the government.

Feld said it didn’t matter one way of the other – the excellent properties of the television band make it highly desirable, and he said he didn’t need a survey to tell him that. He wanted to assure that television broadcasting survive intact, and wireless companies get more spectrum, but primarily, he wanted to make sure that space is left for unlicensed devices in both urban and rural areas.

Veteran legislator John Dingell (D-MI) expects that getting this off the ground will not be easy. He asked his usually series of down-the-line yes-or-no questions, and uncovered areas where difference of opinion exist, and said, “I just want to let you all know that we’re not walking into any tea party here.”

Walden once again presided over a civil and thoughtful hearing that minimized any forays into the fireworks area. He opened the meeting stating his support for auctions as long as broadcasters are protected, and that opinion was subscribed to in one degree or another by just about anybody with access to a microphone.

Following are summaries of the witness testimony. Full written testimony is available at the committee website here.

* Todd F. Schurz, President and CEO, Schurz Communications: Testifying on behalf of the NAB. Notes the broadcast delivery one -to-many stream, which would swamp other digital delivery systems. Innovation necessary to survive. DTV transition was just two years ago, and broadcasters turned over a lot of spectrum. Now we’re being asked for 40% of our spectrum just two years later. Protections must be built into the process. He said that broadcasters should not be relocated to inferior spectrum; that viewers should be able to access all television broadcast services; that there is no increase in interference to broadcast signals; and that broadcasters are fully compensated for any costs associated with channel repacking. As excited about future as I am proud of heritage – no plans to return spectrum.

* Bert Ellis, President, Titan Broadcasting Management: 13 O&O stations. Several major problems with repacking. Too many stations in top 20 markets – in these markets, stations will have to be bought and shut down. Fine, if there are volunteers. My company is open to this for some of our stations. FCC needs to use process to provide win-win for broadcasters, Americans. 1. FCC/Congress mandate wireless to incorporate mobile tuners to all new handsets, for entertainment, more importantly for emergency alert service. 2. New OFDM broadcast standard – more dense channel packing, one broadcast channel would have more broadcast power, allows signals on any device off of one chip. Do not allow tech companies to close broadcast out of the mobile future. Repack, and upgrade technology, mandating broadcast mobile chips.

* Christopher Guttman-McCabe, Vice President, Regulatory Affairs, CTIA-The Wireless Association: Wants incentive auctions and other spectrum sources made available ASAP. Must make sure there is a sufficient pipeline of available spectrum for continued growth in broadband. Keeping up with demand will results in thousands of jobs. Says we should be able to treat relocated broadcasters fairly.

* Dr. Michelle Connolly, Assistant Professor of the Profession, Department of Economics, Duke University: Was chief economist at FCC on two occasions under Republican leadership. Do costs to broadcasters/over-air viewers outweigh overall benefits? OTA is small percentage of viewers, broadcasters are not put out of business, and can benefit from auctions. Meanwhile, growth in information communications should have positive economic benefit. FCC has to be able to relocate broadcasters in a certain zone or the whole competitive auction process will collapse.

* Dean Brenner, Vice President, Government Affairs, Qualcomm Inc.: Former committee intern, 30 years ago and five years before his company was founded. Qualcomm spends $2B a year on R&D to maximize spectrum use. We need more spectrum to meet increasing demand. We’re developing more efficient technology, but not enough to meet pace of increased demand.

* Harold Feld, Legal Director, Public Knowledge: Buttons and buttonholes. Buttons are tangible, buttonholes are necessary empty holes. This is a buttonhole proceeding. Wants more emphasis on white spaces, which has gathered bipartisan support over the years. Will enable gains that will not show up in a CBO score. Benefits being seen in both urban and rural settings. White space entrepreneurs need to know there is a future for unlicensed spectrum devices. Not an either-or. Broadcasting can remain, new licenses for broadband can be created, and room can be left for unlicensed use.

RBR-TVBR observation: One way or another spectrum auctions promise to move forward. The speed of the movement, and the conditions that finally come with them are fluid, and broadcasters will be wise to pay strict and close attention to make sure that the outcome is as positive as it can possibly be.

That means more than just preventing and/or mitigating negatives. If, as Mr. Ellis suggests, this process can be a vehicle for earning the ubiquitous presence of broadcast on mobile, then all levers which can be pulled to make that happen should be utilized.

Could a mobile FM chip piggyback along with on a mobile TV chip? Hey, if we’re looking at yet another crop of legislative lemons in our immediate future, we might just as well dream about the tastiest possible recipe for gourmet lemonade that we can!

Congress must recognize that carriers won’t be able to help themselves – they have their own services to sell – but the broadcast one-to-many model has unique advantages over the one-to-one model used by other digital platforms, and the unique emergency applications offered by one-to-many put it firmly in the national interest to mandate broadcast mobile chips.