Licensed TV spectrum ideas fraught with promise, problems
Last week, there was a lot of buzz surrounding numerous reports that the FCC is considering various proposals that would allow it to reclaim the vast amounts of spectrum being used by television broadcasters and auction it for licensed use.
Ask anyone in the wireless community, and they’ll quickly tell you there is not enough available spectrum — it’s one of the few items that virtually everyone agrees on, whether they come from the commercial, public-safety, utilities or transportation sector.
For this reason, the notion of reclaiming TV broadcast spectrum and auctioning it has a bunch of fans in the wireless world. Not surprisingly, the TV broadcasters aren’t happy at all with the notion, particularly after just completing the expensive process of making the transition to digital television to clear the 700 MHz band.
Proponents for the reclaim-and-auction proposals note that the vast majority of Americans watch television through a cable or satellite service, so reserving hundreds of megahertz of frequencies to provide TV service to a relatively small number of people is rather wasteful. They also note that broadcasters received their spectrum for free, while wireless carriers have to spend billions to access airwaves. Opponents note that Americans should not be forced to subscribe to one of these paid TV services when free, over-the-air programming is a time-honored tradition in the United States.
Whether such an approach should be pursued is a subject for many columns on other days. Today, I want to look at the proposed policy purely from a public-safety communications standpoint. And from that perspective, a reclaim-and-auction policy would seem to be something that first responders should welcome with open arms.
Mind you, none of the proposals I’ve seen even address public safety. The primary goal would be to auction the airwaves to commercial operators, generating as much at $62 billion for the U.S. Treasury, according to one report.
However, if such a plan were in place — with the promise that there would be vast amounts of spectrum for large and small carriers to pursue in auction — the idea of dedicating the 10 MHz D Block to public safety might not be as bothersome to policy-makers concerned about the lack of competitors in the 700 MHz band. In addition, more and/or better commercial carriers operating on licensed spectrum would provide public safety with more options. And, who knows, maybe the government eventually would choose to give public safety a slice of this new spectrum pie.
And eventually probably is a key word in this discussion. Remember, it took 13 years to get TV broadcasters off the UHF channels in the 700 MHz band — after Congress mandated that they must. My suspicion is that the implementation could be somewhat quicker during a second cycle, but no one can predict how long it would take Congress and the FCC to pass rules enabling such a plan, or if they would be able to pass them at all.
In the meantime, just floating the reclaim-and-auction idea probably dampens the hopes of those wanting to see the TV white spaces dedicated for unlicensed use. As long as the notion of making TV spectrum licensed exists, it could be hard for manufacturers to justify investing in development of equipment designed for unlicensed services.
Of course, most in public safety try to avoid using unlicensed spectrum whenever possible, so licensed options may be preferable. Hopefully, federal policymakers can decide on a direction for these valuable airwaves relatively soon, so business plans and product development can begin in earnest for whatever plan is adopted.