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FCC to TV broadcasters: Ready, set ... give your spectrum up

Methods to the madness – and the money – go live today

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The FCC is poised to publish the mechanism by which US TV broadcasters will be able to swap some of their allocated radio spectrum – which they mostly received for free – for a little cold, hard cash come 2014.

The move of asking broadcasters to give some spectrum up was expected, but The Washington Post reckons the FCC will be laying out the details of how it will actually work later today, including the auction of TV frequencies scheduled for 2014. The proposals will be put up to a vote on 28 September - allowing for 21 days of intense lobbying from all factions involved.

The plan is to ask TV broadcasters if they'd like to switch off some broadcast frequencies, allowing the "spectrum-poor" mobile-phone operators run services there instead. The space can be cleared by shuffling the other channels closer together, sometimes without any loss of quality, or by switching off the less-popular channels, and in exchange for their largesse the broadcasters will get a share of the auction revenue, though no one is saying how much. The Treasury will take the rest, some of which the WP says will go towards funding a public safety communications network.

Broadcasters have never paid for their radio spectrum, in the US (and most of the world) TV broadcasting was allocated radio spectrum with minimal charge - the resource wasn't seen as very valuable, and society as a whole gains (or, perhaps, gained) from ubiquitous television, so the allocations were made and can't be rescinded without some compensation.

Apocalypse now

Mobile operators, meanwhile, lobby relentlessly for more spectrum, threatening politicians and the public with dour warnings about the forthcoming "spectrum crunch" which will drive us to eating our own relatives if not urgently addressed. That crunch is predicated on the idea of ever-increasing demand, the same graph which predicts that by 2019 one in three of us will be working as an Elvis impersonator, and one can't argue with statistics like that.

The idea is simple enough, but the devil is in the details. Some of the more pressing questions include: How much will the broadcasters (who never paid for their spectrum) be paid to give it up; what will the FCC do if they refuse; how will the spectrum be auctioned off; and which end of the bands will the FCC value most highly?

TV spectrum is valuable. A single UK multiplex, delivering half a dozen or so standard-definition channels, occupies 8MHz of bandwidth (6MHz in the USA) but the multiplex uses several times that, as it has to transmit at different frequencies in different areas. The total broadcast system uses several hundred MHz. For the sake of comparison: Three, the UK's smallest operator, runs its entire national network in 34MHz of high-frequency spectrum.

If the documents are published later today then we should expect both the mobile and TV industries to spend the weekend working out who, and how, to lobby to improve the deal for themselves, while loudly proclaiming that (by happy coincidence) that will also best serve the American people. ®

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