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FCC Begins Assessing Spectrum for Broadband Rollout

Radio unscathed so far, but we could be affected

In the Federal Communication Commission’s march to developing a plan to roll out broadband, it has released a Notice of Inquiry inviting comment on spectrum assessment.

So far, this debate seems focused on examining whether any over-the-air TV spectrum can be repurposed for broadband. However we should watch the issue to see if radio gets dragged along for this spectrum-trolling effort.

Recently the Consumer Electronics Association commissioned a study by Coleman Bazelon of The Brattle Group that concluded the TV broadcast frequencies would be the easiest to reallocate for broadband and bring about $62 billion at auction. NAB calls the broadband rollout a worthy effort but says there must be a way to accomplish it without crippling TV broadcasters; it reminded the agency of the previous give-back of Channels 52–69 and the upcoming addition of mobile TV.

An engineer recently called me and said something along the lines of: “What is CEA thinking? Some of its members manufacture and sell TV gear.”

Well, its computer and wireless members, as well as CTIA, The Wireless Association, back the effort. In several recent speeches, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski warns of an upcoming “crisis” in spectrum availability for broadband, so the agency appears is serious about getting spectrum from some service. Several organizations, including CEA, CTIA and computer manufacturers, Apple, Audiovox, Kenwood and Skype, penned a letter to the FCC stating they appreciate the chairman’s efforts to close the spectrum gap. While consumers and business reliance on laptops, smartphones and other wireless devices to access bandwidth-intensive applications, content and services, this reliance “will also create a real strain on the nation’s Internet infrastructure,” they wrote.

In the notice, the FCC asks the public to comment on issues like the impact to the economy “if the coverage of free, over-the-air broadcast television was diminished to accommodate a repacking of stations to recover spectrum.” The commission asks for specifics on how TV broadcasters use digital capabilities, such as data rate allocations to high-definition, standard-definition, multicast streams, bandwidth leasing deals “and the business rationale behind these choices.” Ouch.

Comments to GN Dockets 09-47, 09-51 and 09-137 are due Dec. 21.

While one wise sage notes that radio’s more efficient use of its spectrum may help keep it out of this debate, another engineer sees it this way: “As ‘The War on Broadcasting’ goes on, radio may get hit by the shrapnel that could tar radio initiatives.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a policy debate begins as involving “TV,” then the descriptive language widens into “broadcasters,” which sweeps up radio as well. This debate merits attention.