- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 29, 2011

An FCC proposal to take spectrum space away from the nation’s traditional broadcasters to accommodate booming wireless and broadband competitors would be “catastrophic” for the industry and could mean the loss of free, local programming for tens of millions of viewers, National Association of Broadcasters chief Gordon H. Smith warned in an interview.

The broadcast and broadband industries are locked in a fierce battle for space on the nation’s airwaves, and broadband officials say their counterparts should move over and make room for a newer, hipper technology that fuels smartphones, tablet computers and other mobile devices.

The Federal Communications Commission is pushing Congress to give it the authority to repackage this spectrum and give more to broadband. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, has introduced a bill that could do just that and the special deficit supercommittee, eyeing the money the government would make from selling the spectrum space to the highest bidder, is considering similar measures.

But Mr. Smith, a former two-term Republican senator from Oregon who has headed the broadcasters trade group since 2009, made clear that the industry’s antagonists will have a fight on their hands.

“We’re extremely nervous about an FCC that apparently feels that broadcast is yesterday and broadband is tomorrow, that we’re dinosaurs and the others ought to survive,” Mr. Smith said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times this week. “We’re just like a pinata that everyone’s always banging, and we’re saying, ‘Enough already.’ “

Despite the hot reputation of new wireless technologies, Mr. Smith noted, an estimated 46 million Americans - many in rural or low-income areas - rely exclusively on free, advertising-supported broadcast television. Squeezing the number of channels these stations can offer - the practical effect of the loss of spectrum - would force many local channels off the air.

“The collateral damage for our television stations going forward would be catastrophic,” Mr. Smith argued.

Spectrum is like gold in the broadcast and broadband industries. They use it to send signals from television stations, radio stations and wireless networks, but there’s a limited amount to go around. The government has been considering whether to pry even more away from broadcasters and give it to the growing wireless industry, where companies such as Verizon and AT&T would bid on it.

Broadcasters’ share of the spectrum pie already has shrunk to a little less than 300 MHz of space, after losing 30 percent of their spectrum in recent years. Now, they are being asked to hand over an additional 40 percent, or 120 MHz. That would be a major blow to the industry.

Broadcasters fear that losing this spectrum could result in fewer local television stations for viewers.

Wireless carriers, meanwhile, want to expand their networks to the few Americans who don’t have adequate coverage. As smartphones shift from primarily calling devices to multimedia tools, spectrum is becoming more coveted. It allows carriers to offer more of these data services - such as Internet, video and music - at faster network speeds.

They are targeting what they think is plenty of empty spectrum that broadcast stations aren’t using.

“If we have four issues at the wireless industry, the first three are spectrum, spectrum and more spectrum,” Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-the Wireless Association, told The Washington Times last month. “We’ve got to begin to roll out more spectrum.”

Mr. Largent said the wireless industry, which hopes to add 500 MHz of spectrum in the next several years, isn’t looking to force broadcasters to give them more spectrum. They’re offering to buy that “unused” space from stations that want to sell, and to let those who want to keep their spectrum do so.

“This would be a voluntary auction,” said Mr. Largent, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, says CTIA is confused about the purpose of the unused space. Broadcasters need empty spectrum so channels don’t bump against each other.

“The buffer zones protect against that signal going away,” he said.

Mr. Smith fears that Congress and the FCC will pick on the broadcast industry because it is seen as an easy source of revenue.

“The perception is that we’re low-hanging fruit,” he said. “What members understand about broadband and the conventional wisdom is it creates jobs, it cures cancer, and it causes world peace to break out.”

• Tim Devaney can be reached at tdevaney@washingtontimes.com.

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