FCC Asks Broadcasters for Spectrum Back, But Only After Encouraging Digital Transition

Yesterday’s report that the FCC recently asked broadcasters to return a portion of their spectrum is curious because of its timing. Coming just four months after broadcasters switched to exclusively transmitting a digital signal, the request begs the question, “Why did the FCC wait until after broadcasters had invested in the digital transition?” As TVNewsCheck reported, in exchange for returning two-thirds of the present television broadcast spectrum, current licensees would receive a portion of the auction proceeds collected when the FCC re-licensed the spectrum. If, however, the FCC were truly serious about repurposing the current television spectrum, the Commission’s offer would have come before broadcasters committed to digital broadcasting.

Under the FCC’s proposal, broadcasters would revert to a single standard-definition (SD) channel, abandoning the over-the-air high-definition (HD) signals currently being transmitted. Gone would also be the secondary and tertiary channels now available in certain areas, as well as any possibility of mobile television service. The FCC would then auction off the former television frequencies for use by mobile phone operators, sharing a portion of the estimated $75 billion in auction proceeds with television broadcasters. The Commission’s intent is to promote and expand wireless data services such as mobile broadband internet. Underscoring the FCC’s goal of promoting wireless services, the proposal was delivered by Blair Levin, broadband adviser within the Commission’s Office of Strategic Planning & Policy Analysis. After receiving Mr. Levin’s proposal at its October 8 meeting, the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), a broadcast television trade group, rejected the offer, citing both the substantial investment its members made to facilitate the digital transition, as well as the offer’s unappealing nature.

In rejecting the FCC’s offer, television broadcasters pointed to the costs involved with converting its transmitters for digital broadcasting. As part of their upgrades, many stations not only installed the equipment necessary to broadcast digital signals, but also prepared their systems to transmit television to mobile devices. Broadcasters believe that, given the rising popularity of devices such as the iPhone and BlackBerry smartphone, there is large potential audience for programming delivered directly to mobile devices. With the recent approval of a mobile TV broadcast standard, broadcasters can begin to install the additional equipment necessary to support mobile TV, leading to further investment in their broadcast infrastructure. That the FCC waited until after broadcasters invested both in the digital transition and mobile television technology, thereby making an offer of no value to station owners, shows that the Commission is not serious about expanding wireless broadband services.

I have contacted Blair Levin seeking his comments on the TVNewsCheck article and will provide his response, if any, in a subsequent post.