Back to the Paper Bag

by on July 17, 2007 · 4 comments

By Drew Clark

The National Association of Broadcasters likes to think of itself as the king of Capitol Hill. It carefully cultivates an invincible image. And some in the mainstream media buy it. The New York Times describes NAB as “the powerful trade lobby.” But in truth, right now television and radio broadcasters have never been weaker than in 1982, when Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., uttered these famous words: “The NAB can’t lobby its way out of a paper bag.”

Over the last 10 years, the NAB spent $55 million in lobbying expenditures – more than any other association – to disprove Packwood’s hypothesis. But still, the association is now getting hit on all sides. On radio, this year NAB is battling the proposed merger of XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio. Besting such a merger would normally be easy – if NAB hadn’t been arguing for the opposite of what it now seeks. And last month an alliance of performers and recording companies called MusicFirst decided to strike for a performance royalty from over-the-air radio stations. American copyright law exempts terrestrial broadcasters from paying for performances.

But the biggest deal is now heading into the spotlight: vacant television channels known as “white spaces.” Everyone covets them: technology companies like Dell, Google, Intel and Microsoft, wireless carriers like Sprint-Nextel, advocates for rural broadband, and non-profit spectrum utopians who look at white spaces and see decentralized community networks.

Consider what the 700 Megahertz (MHz) brouhaha is all about. There, about 60 MHz of choice beachfront property will go on sale by January 2008. There is buzz about who will bid – even if the Federal Communications Commission decides to endorse the plan put forward by Frontline Wireless, which it probably hasn’t. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has already gotten great press out of less-than-complete open access plan.

But the reason we’re even having this discussion is because the broadcasters lost the spectrum wars – or at least the first spectrum war of the 21st Century. In early 2006, Congress said enough: broadcasters weren’t effectively using channels 52 to 69, and certainly wouldn’t need them after the transition to digital television (DTV) was completed. Television stations will be forced off those channels, corresponding to 698-806 MHz, on February 17, 2009.

That’s 700 MHz. But what about 500 MHz and 600 MHz? All told, there are 294 MHz of frequencies that broadcasters will continue to occupy ever after the DTV switchover. If more than 85 percent of Americans receive television from cable or satellite, as they do, what sense does it make to reserve these choice frequencies for broadcasters’ exclusive use?

Not very much. And that’s where the advocates of white spaces make their entry. A look at the broadcast band for the ZIP code 20006 demonstrates that no more than four of the 21 channels between 30 and 50 are occupied: 32, 45, 47 and 50. That leaves 17 available as white spaces. The channel numbers vary from city to city, and will likely change with the DTV transition. Still, there’s still going to be a lot of unused real estate in the sky.

The coalition of techies wants to open them up for wireless broadband devices capable of “sensing” the local broadcast signals. When vacant, they would transmit data over the vacant channels. Microsoft and Philips Electronics have both presented the FCC with prototypes of such devices.

But the broadcasters are fighting back, and their coalition, including Walt Disney, E.W. Scripps, and Hubard Broadcasting, has been making the lobbying rounds at the FCC to complain that these devices would cause digital TVs to go dark. But this battle won’t be decided at the FCC. Chairman Kevin Martin refused to have anything to do with white spaces until Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – made it clear it wanted him to proceed.

Putting the broadcasters’ arguments about interference aside, are white spaces a good idea? In pure Washington fashion, the answer depends on how you see the NAB’s future strength. White spaces makes the most sense if you still believe that broadcasters treat the airwaves the way Texans treat the Alamo. But for those who believe that the NAB is amenable to reason, and economic incentives, here’s the next puzzle: what will it take to entice broadcasters to sell, give up or vacate the remaining airwaves? There are plenty of telcos, techies, and community activists that believe they can do better with them. All they need now is a game plan to help the broadcasters out of their paper bag.

his column originally appeared on the blog “TelMeTech: The Politics of Telecom, Media and Technology.” URL: http://www.telmetech.com/2007/07/back-to-paper-bag.html

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