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NAB digs in to fight Congressional land grab

Pry mah spectrum from m'cold dead fingers

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The National Association of Broadcasters is calling upon its members – US television channels – to warn the public that the White House, and Senate, are eyeing up television's most-valuable asset.

The FCC has already drawn up plans allowing TV stations to sell off some of their excess spectrum inventory, and is hoping to release 120MHz of TV spectrum as part of the US government's stated aim of putting 500MHz of new spectrum into the market. The NAB has calculated that such a release will disrupt 800 broadcast channels across the country, not to mention leaving millions of Americans with fewer options in an emergency as their video graphically demonstrates.

The CTIA, representing the cellular industry, responds that this is nonsense, and that the FCC scheme is entirely voluntary so there's nothing to be concerned about. But that rather misses the privileged position that television occupies, that of having been allocated radio spectrum for the public good, rather than having to bid for it on the open market.

The cellular industry has nothing to lose by playing up spectrum scarcity, and an intensive campaign has convinced most western governments that the population's appetite for bandwidth is insatiable. But even if that's not true, and increased availability reduces the value of operators' existing spectrum holdings, it also decreases the cost of extending their networks while their existing infrastructure presents an (almost) insurmountable barrier to entry that should prevent new competitors emerging (LightSquared excepted).

Even allowing for a reduction in scarcity, the television channels are still sitting on valuable radio spectrum, and the US government would dearly like to realise that value by reclaiming it from the broadcasters and selling it off. The broadcasters would receive a percentage of the value, to cover the cost of squeezing their TV channels closer together, but the majority of the money would end up in the US treasury coffers.

The scheme is indeed voluntary – TV channels have to opt in – but shareholders have no responsibility to the public good and might well decide to take the money. Distribution would be squeezed into narrower bands, with cable, satellite and IPTV filling in the blanks, and perhaps taking over entirely in regions (such as large cities) where the airwaves are particularly valuable.

That's the future which so worries the NAB, and has prompted their latest campaign. The print and TV advertising points out that TV is where Americans turn in an emergency, but makes no mention of the fact that the FCC plan will see TV broadcasters voluntarily selling out their viewers - assuming they are the rogues of the nation that their industry body seems to think they are. ®

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