Best Use of the Spectrum

TV broadcasters are fighting tooth and nail to hang on to “their” spectrum, the peachy-keen beachfront property in the 700 MHz band that they use to reach the 10 percent of their viewers who don’t have cable or satellite TV. The broadcasters argue they’re doing public service by sitting on this spectrum at the same time they collect money from cable and satellite companies to allow them to deliver local programming according to “must carry” mandates from Congress. It’s a sweet deal: Free use of some the nicest spectrum around, plus a guaranteed money-maker from the cable companies, even if nobody watches their programming.

Given the abundance of corporate welfare in the local broadcaster business model, it should come as no surprise that they don’t use their spectrum efficiently. The typical broadcast station simultaneously broadcasts 1 or 2 High Def shows and 1 or 2 Standard Def shows at the same time, generally a network program in both formats and a less desirable program, such as a weather loop, Suze Orman, or some other material with fringe appeal.

The more adventurous broadcasters are talking about using some spectrum for programming formatted in ATSC-M/H, a new format that’s optimized for viewing on hand-held, battery-powered devices, but this is extremely rare. It does, however, suggest something about the future of Over-The-Air (OTA) TV. Given that over 90% of the people watching TV at home don’t watch the OTA signal, and given that people increasingly want to watch TV on hand-held devices, especially while riding public transportation, hanging out in public or whatever, there’s a certain intuitive appeal to something along the lines of ATSC-M/H, an OTA TV standard optimized for these devices. In fact, it doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that at-home TV sets could be modified to receive ATSC-M/H in time as well. As I said, the idea has some intuitive appeal, so what’s wrong with it?

It turns out that ATSC – the US standard for digital OTA TV – was obsolete before it was deployed. The system was devised 17 years ago by an FCC that has admitted to sandbagging the standard because they wanted to make TV less attractive:

Hundt said that his decision to favor broadband over broadcast was made in 1994, when his first days as FCC chairman coincided with the introduction of the Mosaic browser and the emergence of the Internet as a commercial medium.

“We decided … that the Internet ought to be the common medium in the United States and that broadcast should not be,” he says. The “we” includes Blair Levin — who is the principal author of the National Broadband Plan and who was Hundt’s chief of staff — as well as Genachowski, who was a top aide and thinker.

Hundt said the decision was made even though TV broadcasting had ably served the country as the common medium since the year he was born, 1948.

So now we have an industry the FCC programmed for failure 17 years ago trying to hang onto their spectrum holdings. What would happen if the broadcast spectrum were re-purposed for hand-held devices? We can get one clue from the Qualcomm MediaFLO system. On one standard TV channel, 6 MHZ wide, MediaFLO packs an enormous amount of programming:

For example, a FLO-based programming lineup that utilizes 30 frames-per-second (fps) QVGA (a Quarter Video Graphics Array or 240×320 pixels) with stereo audio includes 14 real-time streaming video channels of wide-area content (ex: national content) and 5 real-time streaming video channels of local market-specific content. This can be delivered concurrently with 50 nationwide non-real-time channels (consisting of pre-recorded content) and 15 local non-real-time channels, with each channel providing up to 20 minutes of content per day.

Adding up, we’ve got 19 real-time streams and 65 non-real-time (TiVo-like) short programs in only one channel. That’s more than most media markets get today over the entire range of channels.

So put yourself in the shoes of the regulator (and assume you’re not out to kill TV in order to drive people to the Internet) and decide what would you do to live up to your statutory responsibility to assign spectrum to its best and highest use.

It seems to me that 19 live streams and 65 additional programs per day in one channel is a better deal than 2 or 3 live streams. What excuse is there for allowing local broadcasters (heavily subsidized by must-carry) to waste this valuable resource so egregiously? At some point, the allocation of free spectrum has to be determined by efficient use.

It certainly isn’t allocated that way today.

  • Steve Crowley

    Hypothetically, today, here’s what I’d do . . .

    First, I’d hire protestors to bang on plastic buckets in front of the Department of Commerce until a thorough spectrum inventory is completed by both the FCC and NTIA, encompassing the provisions of the Snowe-Kerry RADIOS Act.

    Using current data and refreshed assumptions, I’d update the model used by the FCC to show a need for 300 MHz of new spectrum for mobile broadband by the year 2014.

    I’d conduct an inquiry on cord-cutting to get a better sense of what’s going on there, and use that record to inform my policymaking.

    I’d conduct an inquiry on the impact to white space users caused by the loss of 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum.

    Now that I’m better informed, I decide what to do with the incentive auction authority I have for broadcast spectrum, if such authority is granted by Congress.

    On the technology side I’d encourage, rather than discourage, experimentation by broadcasters. I’d let broadcasters provide broadband services using alternate technologies. I would not tell broadcasters what to do, but one migration path might be toward a broadcast system based on, or complemented by, LTE broadcast/multicast standards, with such standards possibly extended to meet additional requirements of broadcasters.

    And I’d do it all without once using the word “unleash.”

  • Steve Crowley

    See also my comment to George Ou, in which I question the FCC’s reliance on a marketing piece to set spectrum policy.

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