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Summary:

As part of its development of the National Broadband Plan, the FCC has started poking around TV broadcasters to find out how much spectrum they are using, and if any of it can be freed up for other commercial purposes.

As we all start buying more devices that wirelessly connect to the internet, there’s a growing concern that there won’t be enough spectrum to accommodate all of that data usage. Unlike fiber, you can’t just make more spectrum, so one of the options that remains is freeing up spectrum from other sources. Sources like over the air (OTA) broadcasts.

As part of its development of the National Broadband Plan, the FCC has started poking around TV broadcasters to find out how much spectrum they are using, and if any of it can be freed up for other commercial purposes. The Commission released a public notice (document) today asking questions such as:

1. What factors should the Commission consider when examining and comparing the benefits of spectrum used for over-the-air television broadcasting and those of spectrum used for wireless broadband services?

2. What would be the impact to the U.S. economy if insufficient additional spectrum were made available for wireless broadband deployment, in terms of investments, jobs, consumer welfare, innovation, and other indicators of global leadership?

3. What would be the impact to the U.S. economy and public welfare if the coverage of free over-the-air broadcast television was diminished to accommodate a repacking of stations to recover spectrum?

4. How do television broadcasters use the capabilities of digital television today? Please provide information on data rate allocations to HD, SD, multicast streams, bandwidth leasing arrangements, etc. and the business rationale behind these choices.

TV broadcasters currently have 6 Mhz of spectrum per station and experts say that they only use 1 – 2 Mhz to deliver HD channels today depending on the type of transmission standard use, they could use as little as 1 MHz per standard definition channel broadcasting using MPEG 4and as much as 5 MHz for an HD broadcasting using MPEG-2. That number could go up with the advent of 3-D TVs or some other kind of as-yet-invented video technology rolls out.

Right now the FCC is just in inquiry mode as it collects data. And it’s easy for the tech savvy to dismiss the importance of OTA TV given how we’re shifting to MSO-delivered and over-the-top TV, but there are still lots of people who rely on free, over-the-air transmissions. The Commission’s challenge will be in balancing the need for more wireless bandwidth (damn you, iPhone!) with the public interest in having free broadcast television.

For more, check out Stacey’s post on how The FCC Sees the Future — and it’s VoIP over at Gigaom.

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  1. Finding innovated ways to bring broadband access to all Americans is critical in closing the digital divide. Broadband technology has the ability to bring jobs back to rural communities and help create economic growth in their local economies. http://www.broadbandforamerica.com/

  2. Personally, I see more of a sustained well-being of the American population (and a better advantage from all angles) if we were to ensure the average American had free or inexpensive OVA net access which they could use to access streaming television.

    I mean… that’s where the shift needs to change… We’ve got 98% of Americans with TVs in the home… lets get the internet access count up that high now.

  3. connectedtraveler Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    Just how much could they get by taking away 4mhz from each tv station in a market? Table scraps.

    Wireless carriers will have to move to more efficient technologies sooner to stay ahead. They can’t count on getting more and more bandwidth that doesn’t exist. Its not as if some more fiber can be laid in existing conduits.

  4. Chris,
    Interesting article as always.

    I’m wondering if you could clarify what experts are saying that broadcasters are only using 1-2 MHz of their bandwidth?

    Each 6 MHz channel allows for a maximum of 19.4 Mbits/sec of bandwidth, using the ATSC standard’s modulation rules. It sounds like you are saying that most ATSC broadcasters are only using one-third of that bit range for their MPEG-2 HD feeds, which puts us in the range of 6.5 Mbits/sec. For HD resolutions, that bit rate is only enough to get good quality using H.264, and ATSC (as deployed in the U.S. at least) does not use H.264.

    1. Hey Dan,

      Thanks for your comment. I didn’t account for the differences between standards, and have updated the story accordingly.

      1. TV stations cannot convert to MPEG-4 any time soon because all those free converter boxes don’t support it. The only relevant numbers are for MPEG-2. Considering that the only people who receive OTA are those who don’t care about quality anyway, I think it would be legitimate for broadcasters to switch to 480i MPEG-2 and thus free up most of their spectrum.

  5. This would all be well and good if I actually got reception thats worth a fuck. The broadcast nodes in my area are within 1 mile of me and they still come in shitty, all of them, except that annoying fucking religious channel. I’d rather they switch back to the traditional NTSC standard, fuck this digital bullshit. I’ll take a little static and fuzz in my channel every day, as opposed to this digitized bleep-bloop blowjob face shit we have now.

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

    [...] 800 MHz of spectrum (and would love to pay for it via a revenue-generating auction), while the FCC has floated some trial balloons to take some of that spectrum from broadcasters. If broadcasters can’t offer “The [...]

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