WASHINGTON (CNS) — The national appetite for broadband, and especially wireless broadband, could result in continued loss of bandwidth for television.
The federal government proposed in late June to find 500 MHz for wireless. The Federal Communications Commission, in its national broadband plan issued earlier in the year, called for the freeing up of spectrum to meet the expected demand.
How does TV fit into the picture?
Let’s say that a local TV channel is sitting on some bandwidth that the government would like to reallocate for wireless. The government would not necessarily force the licensee to give up the bandwidth via eminent domain, the policy that requires government to reimburse property holders if their land is needed for a highway.
But the government can give incentives to get that bandwidth, in the words of one senior White House official who conducted a June 28 telephone conference call with reporters on the condition that he not be identified.
He used the hypothetical situation of “a television station in Los Angeles that has revenues measured at $25 million. It uses 6 MHz of spectrum that someone would be willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars (for).” And the third party is the government, “acting as the agent in between, packaging all of that spectrum,” he said. “It’s a win-win-win for all three.”
The TV station’s incentive? Cash to move elsewhere in the spectrum. Since TV and radio licenses were given away when they were first issued, the government would profit in the resale of the spectrum to wireless users.
It’s not like it hasn’t happened before, or recently. With last year’s switch to digital TV, the “channels” occupied by TV stations are rarely on the same part of the bandwidth as when they were established. Federal policy barred the establishment of a station using the same channel on the dial within 180 miles of another station on that spot.
That’s why, for instance, you’ll see channels 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11 and 13 in New York and the Washington-Baltimore corridor, but in Philadelphia, smack dab between the two megalopolises, they use the other channels of what were once “VHF” (very high frequency).
Technological advances, though, have allowed stations to be bunched together more closely without interfering with the signals of a station in another city. The “UHF” (or ultra-high frequency) channels once ran from 14 to 83. Then the high end was trimmed to 69 and, with the digital conversion, was trimmed again.
Not only have TV channels been bunched more closely together, but technology allows stations to offer subchannels in the digital world. One station in Washington now offers five channels on its relocated spot on the dial. Others offer two, three or four. Very few broadcasters, even in a tough economic and advertising climate, offer just the original channel anymore.
But back to wireless. The FCC and the Obama administration want to open competition to more wireless carriers. The government foresees more data being transmitted through wireless means in the years ahead.
The White House official said the government would inventory its own spectrum holdings and see how different federal agencies could use less spectrum more effectively.
One example: “Our planes use radar, which is a 60-year-old technology. Most of our cars have GPS,” the White House official said. GPS devices receive satellite signals; radar uses radio waves. With time and technology, he added, the Federal Aviation Administration’s use of radar to track planes would be switched to another system using less bandwidth.
The White House official said the search for spectrum and its resulting sale could take up to 10 years.
There’s no official estimate of how much revenue would be generated, but there are hopes that the spectrum sale could net $10 billion.
Spectrum sale proceeds could be used in three ways. One concerns public safety; the switch to digital TV was done in part to give public safety agencies exclusive use of one slice of the spectrum. Another is for technology-dependent infrastructure improvements, including high-speed rail and “smart grid” technology to keep electricity and other utilities accessible when consumers and industry need them. The third use of spectrum sale money would be deficit reduction.
The White House official also offered his view that the spectrum sale for wireless is “one that we think will create hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.
Copyright (c) 2010 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops