Decision Time: Does the Nation Need TV or Mobile Broadband?

whitespaceThe Federal Communications Commission has its eye on television broadcast spectrum, an analyst group has confirmed. At stake is about 300 MHz of spectrum currently delivering the nation’s NBC, CBS, ABC and other broadcast channels over the airwaves. Just months after forcing broadcasters to go through the process of switching spectrum through the digital television transition, the FCC wants to take part of the broadcasters’ new home back so carriers can deliver mobile broadband. They should.

As we treat our wireless devices like mobile computers (and even access the web on our laptops via cellular connections) data use is going up exponentially. Cisco estimates a 66-fold growth between 2008 and 2013 on mobile networks.


Based on Cisco’s (s csco) findings that global average broadband consumption on wired networks was 11.4GB per month, the U.S. would need at least 120 MHz per carrier to fulfill that demand on the current generation wireless networks, Peter Rysavy, a wireless consultant with Rysavy Research, told me in an email a few days ago. Currently most carriers in large markets have about 100 MHz. The U.S. has about 50 MHz in the pipeline and 409.5 MHz of spectrum currently assigned for commercial wireless use, according to the CTIA. The CTIA filed a report with the FCC on Friday asking for it to release a total of 800 MHz for mobile broadband.

With this mobile demand doomsday scenario in mind, the FCC has approached a reluctant broadcast industry about auctioning off some of that spectrum to carriers and sharing the proceeds of that auction. (A CES study issued last Friday put the value of that spectrum at $62 billion.) Given that unlike the carriers, broadcasters have never paid for their spectrum, some people think this plan is kind of like paying squatters to get off useful land. However, Stifel analysts think any effort to get the spectrum released would require an act of Congress and a considerable legislative fight. Given recent history, I think the Stifel guys are right.

The broadcasters have 6 MHz of spectrum to use in order to deliver their programming. An HD stream conservatively requires between 2 MHz and 3 MHz to broadcast, so the FCC is interested in appropriating the other 3 MHz or 4 MHz. Some broadcasters are keen to use the excess to deliver over-the-air mobile television through a standard proposed by the Open Mobile Video Coalition. Here’s most of the chunk of spectrum we’re talking about:


In a perfect world, where everyone had fat broadband pipes, this wouldn’t even have to be up for much debate, because television, even broadcast TV, could be delivered via home broadband connections, as is the case with services like FiOS TV and U-verse. However, folks have to pay for that service rather than just buy a television capable of receiving digital signals, and since 10 percent of the population don’t have a pay TV subscription, that’s a lot of people who would be forced to buy a previously free service. The government has bent over backwards for those people before.

Plus, even the cable guys and telcos get their broadcast signals over-the-air and then packetize them and send them to subscribers, although this could change. So in a way, the idea of allocating more spectrum for broadband at the expense of TV is an example of an older technology being forced to make way for a newer one. I don’t think that’s what the FCC plans to do here, since broadcasters do hold more spectrum than they can currently use to deliver shows like “30 Rock” or “CSI,” but I expect the broadcast industry to hold onto their megahertz as tightly as they can.