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Broadcasters and Wireless Providers Sound Off in Battle for TV Spectrum

The FCC calls for the opening of 500 megahertz of bandwidth for mobile, fixed and unlicensed broadband use over the next 10 years



© ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/ ROBERT DAVIES

The Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) recently released National Broadband Plan has met with mixed reactions from the industries with a stake in the availability of broadcast spectrum. Whereas technology companies producing and serving data to these wireless gadgets want the government to remove a potential bottleneck to the Internet, broadcasters are feeling pinched, having already surrendered the unused "white spaces" in between their channels last year during the digital TV transition.

The FCC's plan makes several recommendations for meeting growing demand for wireless broadband services, including a suggestion that 500 MHz of bandwidth be made newly available for mobile, fixed and unlicensed broadband use over the next 10 years.

This would only be the beginning. "Given current trends and future uncertainty, virtually all the major players in the wireless industry have stated on the record that more spectrum is needed," the plan states. "Estimates range from 40 to 150 megahertz per operator." The Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA) summed up the industry-wide need to be about 800 MHz.

Broadcast companies are generally not pleased that, in addition to the piece of the spectrum they gave up as part of last year's transition from analog to digital TV, the FCC plans to allocate more spectrum over the next few years for wireless broadband communications. Although some question whether broadcast content is the best use of precious spectrum space, broadcast media are still the best way to get information directly to people—a role that cannot be underestimated in emergencies, Dan Margolis, a lawyer with Garvey Schubert Barer's communications, media and technology industry group, said at a National Broadband Plan roundtable discussion hosted Monday by New York Law School in New York City.

"Broadcasters are certainly in a position where a good portion of the money they spent to go from analog to digital may be at a loss because they are being forced to give up another 120 MHz of their spectrum," said Margolis, whose firm primarily represents broadcast companies.

If the FCC can create a way to provide television white spaces to wireless users, the agency might take a similar approach to free up other unused or underused areas of the spectrum, for example those currently utilized by the military, radar and fire and police departments, says Luke D'Arcy, head of cognitive radio technology at Cambridge Consultants, a technology development and consulting firm. "Ninety percent of the time, these areas aren't fully used," he says, adding that, of course, when these users do need the spectrum, they would have priority.

Cambridge released a report Tuesday addressing the use of white spaces as a way to keep up with the proliferation of wireless technology. The report indicates that, although smart phones can access Wi-Fi to send and receive data, this is primarily for short-range communications. Each white space access point would cover up to 10 times the area of a current Wi-Fi access point, whose signals normally travel no more than 30 meters, according to the report.

Telecommunication providers, initially nonplussed with the prospect of allowing wireless users to connect outside of their networks, may be warming to the idea of using white spaces to alleviate some of the data traffic from their already overburdened networks. "These companies are trying to get traffic off of their cellular networks, which are overloaded right now, and using white spaces might be a way of doing this," D'Arcy says.

White space use would not meet all of the bandwidth needs created by new wireless devices, but these unused chunks of spectrum might save telecommunication firms from having to upgrade their wireless cellular networks in the short term, D'Arcy says, adding that "cellular networks are creaking at the moment."

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