How The Plan To Reclaim Spectrum Got Waylaid
By Mike Masnick, Fri Sep 24 06:15:00 GMT 2004

Senator John McCain introduced a bill this week to push up the timeframe in which the US could reclaim valuable spectrum from broadcasters. It didn't take long for an amendment to be added that not only kills that idea, but makes the current situation much, much worse.

In an effort to push US broadcasters to move to digital television broadcasts rather than current analog broadcasts, the US government gave broadcasters a huge swath of spectrum to use for that purpose. This followed a well fought battle over whether or not the broadcasters should be given spectrum for free -- when it could clearly have been auctioned off. The "compromise" agreement was that the spectrum was actually being "loaned" to broadcasters to help make their transition to digital TV easier. After that was done, they would return their unused spectrum. The plan was for all of this to happen by the end of 2006. However, the broadcasters received an important loophole: the handover would only occur if 85% of the viewers in their area had equipment to view digital TV.

This loophole basically removed all of the incentive (which, after all, was the entire point of giving them the spectrum) for the broadcasters to move to digital TV. As long as people weren't adopting digital TV, the broadcasters would own much more spectrum (and for an idea of just how much they own, take a look at this chart). All that spectrum has tremendous value in a number of different places. Most importantly, some of it would be very useful for public safety wireless networks. Second, much of it could be used for both licensed and unlicensed wireless broadband technologies. Right now, much of it sits unused. The broadcasters realize just how valuable the spectrum is, and know they could sell or lease the spectrum for quite a bit of money. The FCC has even specifically called the broadcasters "spectrum hogs" for what they've done in dragging their feet over this issue.

To help resolve this issue, Senator John McCain proposed a plan that would allocate $1 billion to help push consumers to make the transition from analog to digital equipment to get over that 85% hump. He also put in a Jan 1, 2009 deadline for the broadcasters to hand back in that extra spectrum. $1 billion might seem like a lot, but just the portion of the reclaimed spectrum that would be auctioned off for licenses would bring in many times that amount, and more unlicensed spectrum would offer many new opportunities for plenty of companies (look how much has been done already with unlicensed spectrum). And, none of that mentions the increased public safety aspect. All things considered, the plan made perfect sense to everyone but the broadcast industry (and some would make the argument that even they stand to gain from better use of the spectrum).

The broadcast industry, of course, has its own friends in Congress. It barely took a day for Senator Conrad Burns to introduce an "amendment" that totally changed the purpose of the original bill. It got rid of the hard deadline for reclaiming the spectrum, and added a loophole even bigger than the 85%: if the broadcasters could show that handing over the spectrum would cause "consumer disruption" they could keep the spectrum forever. Even worse, all of this battle concerns over-the-air TV signals. The vast majority of US television watchers now receive their television via cable or satellite. However, because of this "amendment" all this spectrum is held up (possibly forever) officially because the government doesn't want to "disrupt" the television viewing habits of a small group of people who have chosen not to get their television from cable or satellite, and who have been offered a total of $1 billion to upgrade their equipment. For this group of people to avoid any "disruption" now means no spectrum for public safety, no spectrum for licensed broadband services, no additional unlicensed spectrum for hundreds of potential uses -- but plenty of spectrum that the broadcast industry will continue to sit on.