A U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposal to transfer 120MHz of television spectrum from broadcasters to mobile broadband carriers could require more than 800 TV stations to change channels and could drive more than 200 off the air permanently, according to a trade group.
The FCC's proposal, part of its March 2010 national broadband plan, would offer TV stations a cut of the proceeds from the resulting spectrum auctions if they volunteer to give up spectrum and change channels. But the FCC plan would create disruption and confusion for millions of over-the-air TV viewers, said Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
The spectrum transfer "is very difficult to do without doing tremendous damage to broadcasting," Smith said during a press conference Monday.
The FCC and mobile carriers have pushed for so-called incentive auctions as a way to free up TV spectrum to meet a skyrocketing demand for mobile broadband spectrum. The Strengthening Public Safety and Enhancing Communications Through Reform, Utilization, and Modernization (or SPECTRUM) Act, currently awaiting action in the Senate, would reallocate 84MHz from broadcasters. Negotiators working on raising the U.S. government's debt ceiling have reportedly talked about the spectrum auctions as one way to raise money to meet budget targets.
The FCC plan would take 40 percent of the TV spectrum away from broadcasters, after they gave up more than a quarter of their spectrum in the move to digital television (DTV) completed in June 2009, Smith said. The DTV transition also led to spectrum auctions, with mobile broadband carriers such as Verizon Communications and AT&T buying the 700MHz spectrum.
The NAB's report, released Monday, assumes that the FCC would attempt to recover 120MHz of contiguous spectrum, from channels 31 to 51. It's unclear how the FCC would recover that much contiguous spectrum with TV stations voluntarily giving up spectrum, and the agency's national broadband plan does not target the specific spectrum used in the NAB study.
The DTV transition required only 174 full-power TV stations to switch channels, while the new spectrum plan would require 672 to clear out of the targeted spectrum, Smith said.
In many areas, there wouldn't be enough TV spectrum left to accommodate the stations required to move, leading to the shuttering of 210 stations in the 61 largest U.S. TV markets, the NAB said. An estimated 800 to 1,200 full-power TV stations would be off the air between a few hours and a few weeks as they installed new equipment, and the same number would have to switch channels, the NAB said.
Eleven of New York City's 23 full-power TV stations would likely go off the air under the FCC plan, the NAB report said. In Los Angeles, 13 of 27 full-power TV stations would likely go off the air, as well as 12 of 19 in the Philadelphia market and 13 of 23 in the San Francisco/San Jose market, the NAB said.
The confusion over the DTV transition would be like a "walk to Sunday school" compared to the problems caused by the proposed spectrum reallocation, Smith said.
NAB officials stressed the importance of over-the-air broadcast TV during natural disasters and other emergencies. Mobile broadband doesn't have the same reach, Smith said. Much of the reason for growing mobile spectrum demand is video, when TV stations already distribute video efficiently, he said.
"It is the one-to-one [transmission] architecture of our friends in the cell phone industry that, frankly, simply fails when it comes to transmitting video," Smith said. "There may not be enough spectrum in the universe to cover all video, one-to-one."
Two trade groups disputed the NAB study. The spectrum plan calls for TV stations to voluntarily give up spectrum and for stations to be reimbursed for the cost of changing channels, said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, a trade group representing mobile carriers. The NAB is using "scare tactics" when the spectrum reallocation can accommodate TV stations and mobile broadband providers, he said in a statement.
With incentive auctions, some TV stations may volunteer to share their spectrum, and others may decide to shut down and take the auction money, creating less of a TV spectrum crunch than predicted, added Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Electronics Association.
"The NAB study sets up and knocks down a purely fictional straw man," he said in a statement. "The study presumes an unrealistic scenario in which every single existing TV station continues to operate over the air."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.