Yesterday, the FCC asked for comments regarding the prospect of reclaiming television spectrum that could be reallocated to support wireless broadband services, particularly some the commercial mobile-data applications that have become increasingly popular with the introduction of new handheld devices like the iPhone.

If this notion sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Just this summer, the transition to digital television was completed more than 12 years after Congress mandated that TV broadcasters would have to relinquish some of their UHF spectrum — channels 52 through 69 — for wireless services. Most of this 700 MHz spectrum was auctioned to commercial operators, and 24 MHz was allocated for public-safety use.

Because the digital-television transition happened so recently, the fundamentals regarding TV broadcast spectrum are well known. Every television broadcaster has 6 MHz of spectrum per channel that it can use to transmit signals that deliver free, over-the-air programming to its coverage area. Between these used channels are swaths of unused spectrum known as TV white spaces.

Once upon a time, over-the-air programming was the anchor of television communications. Those days are long gone, with more than 80% of U.S. households now receiving their television through paid subscriptions to cable or satellite services that don’t require the TV broadcast spectrum.

At a time when spectrum efficiency is a priority, many policy-makers have questioned whether using large swaths of prime spectrum to deliver television to less than 20% of the population represents the best use of these airwaves. Furthermore, wireless industry representatives are quick to note that wireless carriers are required to pay billions of dollars at auctions for their spectrum, while TV broadcasters were given their spectrum at no cost.

But the 20% of the population still receiving over-the-air broadcasts represents ten of millions of people — a fact not lost on Beltway policy-makers who granted a four-month extension to the digital-television transition in an attempt to avoid alienating as few voters as possible. And count on broadcasters to remind politicians of the fact.

“We will be able to make our case, and we will make that aggressively — not only to defend broadcasters but to defend the literally tens of millions of people who rely on our service every day and don’t pay a dime to see free TV,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

Expect broadcasters to also note that they just recently gave up 25% of their spectrum, that the cost of pay-TV rates likely would only increase more if over-the-air programming was not an option, and that broadcasters have invested significant time and money to develop digital-TV business models that would be jeopardized if their spectrum is reallocated.

We can expect broadcasters’ voices to be heard on Capitol Hill, as NAB has long had a reputation as one of the most effective lobbying organizations.

However, the commercial wireless industry continues to display increasing political clout, and CTIA has said carriers need an additional 800 MHz in the next six years to meet the demand for wireless broadband services. To put that 800 MHz in perspective, realize that clearing all TV broadcasters from the airwaves still represent less than 50% of CTIA’s goal.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what actions the supporters of unlicensed use of the white space — a notion that seemed to have momentum earlier this year — decide to take on their behalf.

Where do government entities like public safety and critical-infrastructure entities like power utilities and health-care providers fit into this picture? More spectrum theoretically increases the likelihood that capacity constraints would be less of a problem for commercial carriers, for those entities opting to utilize such services. Meanwhile, if commercial carriers have the hope of getting TV spectrum in future auctions, perhaps those carriers currently opposed to allocating the D Block to public safety would be inclined to support the first-responder efforts.
Unfortunately, it is doubtful that any of this will be resolved as quickly as interested parties would like, even though comments in the FCC proceeding are due in less than three weeks, so they can be included in the agency’s national broadband plan. After all, the last time TV spectrum was debated, the legislative process was not quick, and it took more than a decade after that before new users were allowed to access the airwaves.