The following column was published in the May 21, 2012 edition of Politico.
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Congress has been consumed in recent years with contentious debate on how best to preserve and enhance free and local broadcasting — the original wireless technology — while making available airwaves that can also be used to alleviate the much-hyped “spectrum crunch” for wireless broadband providers.
We think lawmakers struck the right balance with legislation signed into law earlier this year that provides incentives for television stations that voluntarily choose to go out of business, but which acknowledges the enduring and indispensable role that local broadcasting plays in the fabric of American society.
Lawmakers have good reason to want a healthy broadcast industry. Broadcast TV stations provide over 186 thousand jobs on an annual basis, which directly generates over $30 billion in gross domestic product. The ripple effect of TV broadcasting on the economy is even greater, with 1.54 million jobs and $716.43 billion in annual GDP attributed to the local television business.
Those who dismiss the value of local television — or who would like to see broadcasting’s role in society diminished — seem clearly motivated by a desire to replace a free service available to all with a fee service available to some.
Despite some of the criticism from broadcasting’s biggest critics, the facts are these:
— The number of broadcast-only TV households is actually growing, not declining. A Knowledge Networks study last year found more than 17 million households representing 45.6 million consumers receive television exclusively through over-the-air (OTA) broadcast signals; that’s up from 42 million OTA viewers just the previous year.
— The OTA-reliant population includes one out of four Asian-American and Spanish-speaking households and 17% of African-American homes. Pay TV “cord-cutting” is also a growing trend for younger viewers, and today one out of five adults age 18-34 is broadcast-only.
— Broadcast channels continue to attract the most television viewers, with over 95 of the top 100 rated primetime programs each week appearing on a broadcast network. Marquee events like the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series, Academy Awards and the Kentucky Derby are all on broadcast TV, and available free to every American.
— When there’s an emergency weather situation, it is the local broadcaster that will be the source for information that often makes the difference between life and death. During the killer tornadoes that struck Joplin, MO and Tuscaloosa, AL last year, citizens and public officials credited local TV weather forecasters with saving scores of lives.
A thriving broadcast TV industry can be partly attributed to new services ushered in by the analog-to-digital transition. Over-the-air HD channels provide a higher-quality viewing experience than is delivered through cable. New multicast channels have also expanded choices on the television dial, often catering foreign-language or other niche programming to previously underserved communities. For instance, Bounce TV, led by Martin Luther King III and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, launched recently as the first over-the-air broadcast TV network for African-Americans.
Broadcast services can also play a role in helping cellphone providers meet the increasing demand for video on their mobile devices. Broadcasters throughout the country are rolling out mobile DTV to provide on-the-go viewers with access to live and local programming anytime, anywhere on their smartphones, laptops and even the backseats of cars. Since mobile DTV is delivered to mobile devices using broadcasting’s ‘one-to-everyone’ architecture, data-hogging video would be kept off of mobile broadband’s inefficient ‘one-to-one’ infrastructure, freeing up space for less data-intensive services like text messaging and phone calls.
During last August’s earthquake in the D.C. region, cellphone networks experienced widespread congestion, delayed service and tens of thousands of dropped calls. Some of this congestion was caused by consumers using their phones to go online to find local news about the earthquake, oftentimes on local TV stations’ website. With mobile DTV, Americans can stay off mobile broadband networks for information and instead receive continuous, lifesaving information from their local broadcaster during times of emergency.
Complementing broadband with broadcast should not be the only approach to making spectrum usage more efficient. For months, NAB has called on the FCC to heed the calls of lawmakers such as Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, John Kerry, Olympia Snowe and Mark Warner to conduct a comprehensive spectrum inventory. This inventory should not just identify services set aside on the spectrum dashboard, but rather uncover what companies and government agencies hold spectrum and what they plan to do with it.
NAB has pointed out numerous instances in which telecom companies have purchased spectrum licenses but announced no plans to deploy it, raising questions about the pervasiveness of spectrum warehousing. Our calls were echoed only a few weeks ago by AT&T’s lobbyist. “Spectrum is in the hands of entities which either are sitting on it or not using it,” he told Politico. Even when spectrum is in the hands of those saying they need it the most, there are doubts that it’s being put to the best use. A recent study by Citigroup, the largest financial services network in the world, found only 192 MHz of the 538 MHz held by wireless carriers is in use.
Getting more spectrum into the hands of wireless carriers may not even be the best solution to alleviate mobile broadband congestion. According to an article in The New York Times, Martin Cooper, the inventor of the cellphone, believes technologies like wi-fi and smart antennas would make better use of the network. “Every two and a half years, every spectrum crisis has gotten solved, and that’s going to keep happening,” Cooper said. “We already know today what the solutions are for the next 50 years.”
Broadcasters stand ready and willing to work with policymakers to expand wireless broadband and address the other pressing issues facing the telecom industry. However, all stakeholders should reject glib and shortsighted solutions that might put in jeopardy the future of free and local TV. Broadcasting’s best days lay ahead as both an engine of local economies and as an integral part of tomorrow’s technological world.