The Federal Communications Commission has its eye on television broadcast spectrum, an analyst group has confirmed. At stake is about 300 MHz of spectrum currently delivering the nation’s NBC, CBS, ABC and other broadcast channels over the airwaves. Just months after forcing broadcasters to go through […]

whitespaceThe Federal Communications Commission has its eye on television broadcast spectrum, an analyst group has confirmed. At stake is about 300 MHz of spectrum currently delivering the nation’s NBC, CBS, ABC and other broadcast channels over the airwaves. Just months after forcing broadcasters to go through the process of switching spectrum through the digital television transition, the FCC wants to take part of the broadcasters’ new home back so carriers can deliver mobile broadband. They should.

As we treat our wireless devices like mobile computers (and even access the web on our laptops via cellular connections) data use is going up exponentially. Cisco estimates a 66-fold growth between 2008 and 2013 on mobile networks.


Based on Cisco’s findings that global average broadband consumption on wired networks was 11.4GB per month, the U.S. would need at least 120 MHz per carrier to fulfill that demand on the current generation wireless networks, Peter Rysavy, a wireless consultant with Rysavy Research, told me in an email a few days ago. Currently most carriers in large markets have about 100 MHz. The U.S. has about 50 MHz in the pipeline and 409.5 MHz of spectrum currently assigned for commercial wireless use, according to the CTIA. The CTIA filed a report with the FCC on Friday asking for it to release a total of 800 MHz for mobile broadband.

With this mobile demand doomsday scenario in mind, the FCC has approached a reluctant broadcast industry about auctioning off some of that spectrum to carriers and sharing the proceeds of that auction. (A CES study issued last Friday put the value of that spectrum at $62 billion.) Given that unlike the carriers, broadcasters have never paid for their spectrum, some people think this plan is kind of like paying squatters to get off useful land. However, Stifel analysts think any effort to get the spectrum released would require an act of Congress and a considerable legislative fight. Given recent history, I think the Stifel guys are right.

The broadcasters have 6 MHz of spectrum to use in order to deliver their programming. An HD stream conservatively requires between 2 MHz and 3 MHz to broadcast, so the FCC is interested in appropriating the other 3 MHz or 4 MHz. Some broadcasters are keen to use the excess to deliver over-the-air mobile television through a standard proposed by the Open Mobile Video Coalition. Here’s most of the chunk of spectrum we’re talking about:


In a perfect world, where everyone had fat broadband pipes, this wouldn’t even have to be up for much debate, because television, even broadcast TV, could be delivered via home broadband connections, as is the case with services like FiOS TV and U-verse. However, folks have to pay for that service rather than just buy a television capable of receiving digital signals, and since 10 percent of the population don’t have a pay TV subscription, that’s a lot of people who would be forced to buy a previously free service. The government has bent over backwards for those people before.

Plus, even the cable guys and telcos get their broadcast signals over-the-air and then packetize them and send them to subscribers, although this could change. So in a way, the idea of allocating more spectrum for broadband at the expense of TV is an example of an older technology being forced to make way for a newer one. I don’t think that’s what the FCC plans to do here, since broadcasters do hold more spectrum than they can currently use to deliver shows like “30 Rock” or “CSI,” but I expect the broadcast industry to hold onto their megahertz as tightly as they can.

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  1. The FCC may not have to claw back bandwidth from broadcasters in order to get what’s needed for mobile bandwidth. There are more than a hundred television stations around the country whose owners are bankrupt or are operating the stations on a “day-to-day” basis, trying to keep the lights on. If these owners were compensated for giving their frequencies back to the FCC, a good deal of bandwidth would become available without anyone being forced to participate. The FCC could also offer station owners the option of returning a portion of their bandwidth in return for compensation. By making the buyouts voluntary and appealing, especially for bankrupt operators, the FCC could get the bandwidth it’s looking for.

  2. I current growth rates, it’s doubtful that any increase in wireless spectrum will satisfy the demand. Any additional spectrum now is in a sense a cheap giveaway of a valuable national resource to the carriers.

    The issue is the existing tower infrastructure. You can double the spectrum allocation that a tower can use, but that only doubles the data capacity, hardly a solution for a demand that’s growing exponentially. The real solution is to increase the number of available cells with a corresponding decrease in range and power. The are innovated technologies in place and in development for doing so, incorporating transponder technology in infrastructure: buildings, utility and light poles, roadways, etc., for instance. The beauty is that increase capacity is created where it’s most needed, urban areas and transportation corridors. The problem, at least as far as the carriers are concerned, is the cost of the build out and that they won’t be granted another chunk of a public resource.

  3. Satellite Cos. Pitch Their Spectrum to the FCC and Eventually Carriers Monday, November 9, 2009

    [...] CTIA is asking the FCC for 800 MHz and isn’t afraid of going up against broadcasters to get it, so this plea for a rethink on satellite may just be the organization’s effort to throw [...]

  4. Fox-TWC Fight Could Weaken Broadcasters’ Hold on Spectrum – GigaOM Tuesday, December 29, 2009

    [...] and News Corp. over retransmission fees for Fox’s broadcast channels may make it hard for the broadcast industry to defend its precious spectrum from the cellular industry’s attempt to take it. Time Warner Cable and News Corp are in a [...]

  5. Analyst: Spectrum Shortage Will Strike in 2013 – GigaOM Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    [...] from the developers building more resource-aware mobile applications to the folks in Washington allocating the spectrum and dictating regulations around mobile broadband will have to work together in order to make sure [...]

  6. National Broadband Plan Will Be a Day Early But Fall Short – GigaOM Sunday, March 7, 2010

    [...] the government won’t demand that spectrum from broadcasters, as had been originally floated by the FCC. Instead the FCC is asking broadcast television spectrum holders  to voluntarily give up their [...]

  7. FCC’s Broadband Plan: Mobile Broadband Will Save Us! – GigaOM Wednesday, March 17, 2010

    [...] in urban areas, where cellular providers have the most need for spectrum, which will pit the FCC and carriers against big broadcasters and over-the-air television watchers in big cities. Oh. My. God. It’s going to be a showdown. But I’m glad the FCC [...]

  8. Broadcasters Announce Plan to Use Spectrum Before They Lose It Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    [...] broadcasters to switch spectrum through the digital television transition, the commission now is trying to reclaim some broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband services in an effort to avert a possible spectrum [...]

  9. GigaOM’s Top 15 Mobilize Influencers 2010: Tech News « Wednesday, September 22, 2010

    [...] at the agency. With up to 500 MHz of new spectrum supposed to come online in the next 10 years, some of that pretty contentious, as well as the growing power that mobile operators have over both consumers and developers [...]

  10. Worried About Tablets the FCC Gets Serious About Spectrum: Tech News « Thursday, October 21, 2010

    [...] involved in any process aimed at making more of it available. There are also the nation’s broadcasters which are likely to fight the good fight to keep its spectrum for delivering over the air television, but also services such as mobile TV [...]

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