Broadband Versus Broadcast: Who Should Win?

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The FCC would like to change your medium of choice from broadcast to broadband.

During a recent CITI program presented at Columbia Business School, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt discussed the inspiration behind the National Broadband Act, a plan that will require broadcasting to release 120 MHz of spectrum to broadband over the next ten years.


"The choice to favor internet over broadcast as the common medium was made in the first draft written between 1994-97 by some of the people now running the FCC," said Hundt.  "You can not stop the government from choosing a common medium.  It’s going to."

But should it?

"Currently there is a peaceful co-existence," said Kamy Merithew, vice president of marketing for Wegener, a company focused on providing media solutions for multi-site networks.  "When people want to sit back and relax, they’ll go to their TV.  If they want to search for something specific, they’ll be in computer mode."

Broadcast has also been the means of reliably disseminating matters of public safety, such as weather alerts and government announcements.  In addition to PSAs, broadcast provides a free forum for diverse public interests.


“Broadcast has inherently provided local programming with a diversity representing a large factor of the community, and that is appealing,” said Jeff Burke, director of technology research initiatives, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television/executive director of REMAP.   “We wouldn’t want to loose this centralized programming.  The idea of broadband as a bi-communication system offers a different ecosystem of content.”


Whether broadband dethrones broadcast as the medium of choice or not, it is a viable communication format that has a realistic need for additional spectrum as its user base and technologies evolve.  However, the proposed restructuring presented by the FCC with a spectrum reallocation of 300 MHz by the year 2015 provides unrealistic challenges to broadcasters.

"It’s an engineering nightmare," said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president, National Association of Broadcasters.  "It’s a cumbersome process that will take years.  There will be an immediate loss of channels 45-51. We will have to move these stations down."  

One recommendation by the FCC to accommodate station loss is the splitting of broadcast spectrum.  In addition to a costly reconfiguration of station antennas, an update to broadcast equipment, and a reconfiguration of DTV converter boxes and consumer antennas, this type of spectrum split will result in competing channels forced to share the same airspace.

"Sharing a 6MHz TV channel would be better described as trying to park two different cars in the same parking spot at the same time," said Tim Holly, supervising engineer, CBS Studios.

With the FCC’s intent clearly vocalized by Hundt, it’s up to the broadcasting world to present alternatives and work with lobbyists in congress to fight for their cause.  Combining the benefits of broadband with broadcast is one potential solution.


“We can align broadcast to handle video,” said Wharton.  “There’s a limited capacity of cell phone providers to transmit video.  They can offload video to broadcasters.  This is one way we can reduce spectrum shortage.”


“The toughest thing to imagine right now is ‘How is this need going to be met?’  There are no real alternatives provided in the FCC’s plan, it just sees the need for more spectrum,” said Burke.  “Can the spectrum we have now be used more effectively?”


Closely reviewing the allocation of spectrum and determining how it can be allocated has already begun with the introduction of the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act and the Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act, both submitted to the House of Representatives by the Energy and Commerce Committee headed by Rick Boucher, Democrat, Virginia.   


"We fully support a full spectrum inventory to discern where spectrum is and isn’t being used.  This complete accounting assures more fair distribution,” said Wharton. “There will be a series of congressional hearings and over 40 FCC rule making negotiations as a result.  This is the first step in a very long marathon.”