FCC to Broadcasters: You Gonna Use All That Spectrum?

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.