Tagged: Spectrum Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Rick Kaplan 12:40 pm on January 13, 2014 Permalink
    Tags: , Spectrum   

    Spectrum Reflections: It’s Time for A Moment of Reflection, CCA 

    CCA, please tell us you are kidding.

    In December, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), a trade association that represents most wireless carriers with the exception of Verizon Wireless and AT&T, filed comments at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in response to the FCC’s proposed rulemaking to eliminate the so-called UHF television discount. The filing would be downright funny if it wasn’t so desperate, specious and irresponsible.

    The UHF discount proceeding is a pure broadcast television issue. By way of brief background, the broadcast television ownership rule prohibits a single entity from owning stations that reach in the aggregate more than 39 percent of total television households nationwide. The “UHF discount” allows stations broadcasting in UHF to count toward that cap only half of the TV households in their markets, as opposed to all of the households for VHF stations. The FCC has proposed to eliminate that discount.

    The issue has absolutely no impact on the wireless industry. So why would CCA file? Was it a mistake?

    CCA’s comments prodded the FCC to “examine . . . rules applicable to broadcast stations and take action to eliminate remaining regulatory distortions. . . . [T]he Commission should carefully consider how the existing rules and proposed reforms would affect broadcast stations’ incentives to relinquish spectrum in the upcoming 600 MHz incentive auction and adopt reforms in light of that vital consideration.”

    In plain English, CCA expressly asked the FCC to strong arm broadcasters into participating in the wholly unrelated voluntary broadcast spectrum incentive auction. CCA’s theory is that if the FCC takes actions that affirmatively harm broadcasters, more broadcasters will participate in the voluntary auction, and then CCA’s members will have access to more spectrum than they would have otherwise. 

    Underlying CCA’s advocacy is the notion that broadcasters benefit from regulations that “distort” the market. Presumably CCA is not referring to all of the obligations imposed on broadcasters (that are not imposed on the wireless industry), such as children’s programming mandates, indecency regulation and captioning requirements, just to name a few. 

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe both.

    Let’s have a good laugh first. CCA apparently neither understands the regulatory regime under which broadcasting is governed nor the concept of irony.

    First, no industry is more heavily regulated by the FCC than broadcasting. Unlike any other industry, the FCC’s regulations govern many facets of broadcasters’ operation. The very structure of our industry is dictated by the federal government. For example, as noted above, in terms of ownership, Congress set a cap on how big any one television group can get: no entity can reach more than 39 percent of the U.S. population. There is no corresponding rule in the wireless industry. Indeed AT&T and Verizon Wireless produce maps claiming to cover more of the country than the other. The government has also imposed a number of mandates on broadcasters to which no other industry is subject. Broadcasters have to produce a certain amount of children’s programming for example. CCA’s members, on the other hand, just have to throw up a tower and let whatever comes across – and we sure know what can come across – reach the end user. Speaking of the Internet, unlike wireless companies (including those that got their spectrum “for free”), the FCC has imposed decency standards on broadcasters. Cable channels don’t even have the same obligations. Broadcasters are also subject to accessibility regulations far beyond what CCA’s members could fathom. So it is safe to say that broadcasting is not an industry propped up by regulation – unlike small wireless carriers (a point to which I will return) – we are primarily saddled with government regulation.

    Second, unlike broadcasters it is CCA’s members that depend on government regulation.  Government intervention is their oxygen. In a largely deregulated wireless industry, CCA pays visits to the Commission time and time again, imploring the FCC to give its members preferential treatment. In fact, in the incentive auction proceeding itself, CCA is virtually begging the Commission to give its members a leg up on AT&T and Verizon Wireless. CCA also routinely seeks forced interconnection among wireless carriers, so that its members can free ride on the investment of others who have invested billions to build their networks. It asks the FCC to subsidize its members through the Universal Service Fund so they don’t have to invest. And it routinely seeks to force other carriers to interoperate with its members so they can ride off the bigger carriers’ backs on equipment orders. CCA is an association that has never met a regulation it hasn’t liked. It relies on, and affirmatively seeks to increase, government intervention in the marketplace.

    This characterization is not simply my opinion; all it takes is a quick walk through CCA’s recent filings to discover its government-prop-us-up mission. Just over the past year, CCA has fervently advocated in favor of the following market interventions:

    • Revision of the spectrum screen to impose government-mandated limits on the amount of spectrum commercial carriers may aggregate;
    • Adoption of auction rules that limit the amount of spectrum large carriers may  acquire, as well as bidding credits and other mechanisms to favor other carriers, and license areas tailored to the desires of CCA’s membership;
    • Forced provision of data roaming arrangements;
    • Mandated interconnection obligations for  incumbent Local Exchange Carriers following the IP transition, including the full panoply of Section 251 and 252 requirements;
    • Forced interoperability of handsets;
    • Revision of the USF rules to increase subsidies for rural wireless service providers;
    • Conditions on the merger of AT&T and Leap, including divestiture of spectrum in markets where AT&T exceeds the spectrum screen, as well as forced offering of roaming arrangements on the same terms and conditions carriers previously negotiated with Leap; and
    • Conditions on the Verizon-AT&T spectrum swap, including an interoperability mandate.

    Now for the part that’s no laughing matter.

    Somewhere along the way, CCA – and they are not alone in this – conveniently overlooked Congress’s clear direction that the incentive auction must be voluntary. “Voluntary” means that no broadcaster, by any means, can or should be coerced into participating in the auction. CCA is asking the FCC to violate the law by forcing broadcasters, through regulatory arm twisting, to give up their spectrum. If the FCC turns up the heat enough, says CCA, then broadcasters will have no choice but to “volunteer.” That is a big no-no, although CCA seems not to care about staying within the bounds of the law.

    If CCA were the only organization heading down this road, I likely would not be writing this post. For if a tree falls in a forest…well, you know the rest. But there are others out there with similar motives. And it is time to shine light on an issue that needs to be crystal clear. The FCC cannot, under the law, take any action designed to harm broadcasters with an eye towards encouraging participation in the auction. The lone incentive for participation is the market-based auction itself, and the compensation broadcasters are offered to relinquish their licenses.  Anything else is unlawful, and it is no laughing matter to push the FCC to violate the law.

    The voluntary broadcast spectrum incentive auction can be a success. The Commission does not need to cheat in order to make it so. NAB, as always, stands ready and is committed to doing what we can to see the Commission succeed in its auction and to do so in a way that adheres to the law.

  • Rick Kaplan 1:10 pm on December 18, 2013 Permalink
    Tags: , Spectrum   

    Spectrum Reflections: The Impending Sprint-Mo and the Auction Oh-No 

    I have to imagine that AT&T and Verizon Wireless (and their troops in Washington, in particular) are taking some pleasure in the recent stories suggesting that Sprint and T-Mobile are once again contemplating a merger. The potential for such a union adds a new level of intrigue in the campaign these four wireless heavyweights have been waging over whether the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should limit the amount of spectrum any one carrier can acquire in the FCC’s upcoming voluntary broadcast spectrum incentive auction.

    For more than a year, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, aka “the big guys,” have been slugging it out with Sprint and T-Mobile, aka the “not-quite-as-big guys,” over whether the FCC should impose caps on the amount of spectrum the big guys can acquire in the voluntary broadcast spectrum incentive auction. The not-quite-as-big guys have been arguing that, if the FCC does not limit the amount of spectrum the big guys can acquire in the incentive auction, the not-quite-as-big guys will be frozen out, and the already expansive gulf between the big guys and not-quite-as-big guys will expand. The big guys respond that an “open auction” – one without restrictions – will yield the largest payday for the U.S. Treasury, as any artificial limits could hamper the auction’s overall success. As one might imagine, the not-quite-as-big guys disagree with this analysis, and what has followed is a massive subsidy of the economics profession in the United States, as each side has enlisted countless economists to support their respective worldviews.

    The recent revelation concerning Sprint and T-Mobile has now fueled a new element of the wireless competition debate. Namely, how does this potential merger affect, if at all, the auction eligibility rules the FCC has been designing with today’s wireless industry in mind?

    To illustrate the specific challenge this merger poses, let’s assume that the FCC is contemplating rules that would ensure that each of the top four wireless carriers has a reasonable shot at acquiring spectrum in the incentive auction. What happens, then, if those rules are enacted, and Sprint and T-Mobile subsequently reach a deal to merge, but prior to the auction itself? Or, what happens if the two companies participate in the auction independently, benefit from competitive rules designed for them, and then merge with spectrum assets they wouldn’t have had access to had they merged pre-auction?

    The plot has certainly thickened.

    The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has not taken a formal position on whether the FCC should enact any rules within the voluntary broadcast spectrum incentive auction to foster competition in the wireless industry. While competition in the wireless industry is certainly a good thing for broadcasters (e.g., Sprint’s deal to activate FM chips in cell phones when the big guys passed on the public safety opportunity), we haven’t studied carefully the effects of various rules imposed in an auction and their likelihood of success.

    For the Commission, the rumors of a Sprint/T-Mobile merger seriously raise the stakes for the wireless competition issue; one that has already had more airplay than any other. One way to think about the added complication of the potential merger is through the eyes of those designing the rules. Any competitive rules being considered by the FCC necessarily have some “ideal” number of national carriers in mind. For example, the Commission could determine that no bidder should win more than 25 or maybe 33 percent of the licenses in each market area. The former (25 percent) is likely based on a desire for at least four carriers, while the latter (33 percent) for at least three. If the Commission chooses four (i.e., a 25 percent cap on each carrier), but then Sprint and T-Mobile merge post-auction, the new “Sprint-Mo” could walk away with 50 percent of the licenses in a given area, potentially undermining the Commission’s long-term competitive aims.

    One may argue that this alleged problem is overblown, as a newly merged Sprint-Mo (pre-auction) could give even smaller carriers a shot at spectrum in the auction. One could also assert that a post-auction merger would likely result in serious spectrum divestitures, thus benefitting small wireless carriers. But, time has shown that most small carriers cannot survive the capital-intensive wireless business long-term, and they ultimately end up either relying on significant government intervention to survive (e.g., data roaming, interoperability, special access reform, the Universal Service Fund, auction rules to their benefit), or more likely, they simply sell out to the big guys in the end, anyway. This is likely why the Department of Justice focused almost exclusively on the nationwide providers in the competition analysis it submitted to the Commission last April.

    The challenge for regulators is that the commercial wireless industry is consolidating at a rapid rate, therefore providing a moving target. It is difficult to employ effective competitive auction rules if you have no idea what the industry you are trying to keep competitive will look like when those rules take effect (i.e., in an auction at least 18 months away). This is not to suggest, in any way, that the FCC should not be looking closely at how to foster a competitive wireless marketplace, and even do so in the context of this auction. Rather, I’m merely highlighting the high degree of difficulty in getting it just right.

    The major concern for AT&T and Verizon Wireless is that Sprint and T-Mobile may have a chance to end run the process. If they are savvy, they may be able to achieve favorable auction rules, win convincingly at auction and then merge. The FCC would then be in the tough position of having to either deny that merger or exact major divestitures, the latter of which (divestitures) has historically been a disaster. On the other hand, if approved, the resulting Sprint-Mo would be a spectrum powerhouse, having navigated the regulatory wireless morass in a way that only DISH Chairman Charlie Ergen has managed to so far.

    And speaking of Charlie, let’s not forget that his 40 – oops, soon to be 50 – megahertz is still out there, lonely, fallow and perhaps waiting for a call from Sprint-Mo as well.  

    It should be a fun first half of 2014. Happy New Year!

  • Rick Kaplan 10:04 am on December 17, 2013 Permalink
    Tags: , Spectrum   

    Representing Broadcasters and True Incentive Auction Success 

    At last week’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “Crafting a Successful Incentive Auction,” the executive director of the Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition (EOBC) sounded the alarm that the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) upcoming incentive auction was on the path to complete failure. The reason? The FCC is allegedly not moving fast enough to inform broadcasters exactly how much money the agency plans on shelling out for their spectrum licenses and that the agency may be considering reverse auction rules that approximate the actual value of spectrum licenses. He concluded that anything that gets in the way of paying broadcasters handsomely for their spectrum licenses is going to lead to auction catastrophe.

    Let me ease your minds: There is no cause for alarm. The sky is not falling. Broadcasters are patient, digesting what emerges from the FCC and recognize that this is a long, complex process.

    The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), along with the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), represents the true interests of all broadcasters. Our aim is to serve America’s local broadcasters and to expand their opportunities in the 21st century, whatever they might be. We have members who will continue broadcasting for decades to come and others that may look to the incentive auction as an opportunity to exit the business after a long history of serving their communities.

    The EOBC, while apparently made up of companies that hold licenses in the broadcast band (its membership list is a closely guarded secret), does not represent broadcasters. In many respects, this group seems to stand in stark contrast to what is in the best interests of broadcasters and broadcasting. Its mission is singular: to capitalize on regulatory arbitrage. Its aim is to make sure that its members are paid as much money as possible and paid as quickly as possible for their spectrum licenses. 

    While there is nothing wrong with having one’s own interests at heart, we must take the comments of this coalition in that context. This context explains why, as opposed to NAB, APTS, as well as the representatives of wireless companies and associations, cable companies and associations and public interest groups, the EOBC is not concerned with the resulting 600 MHz band plan, how international coordination impacts the future of television, interoperability, co-channel interference, or any other issue beyond how much they get paid and how quickly. The day their checks are cashed, their engagement in this auction ends; the EOBC has no interest in the subsequent repacking or consumer welfare.

    The FCC staff is working hard to solve dozens of challenges in this extremely complicated auction. The agency is not close – nor should it be at this point – to determining starting prices in markets or even to confirming which markets are eligible for auction. These are very difficult questions among many others that need to be sorted out over time.

    If done right, the FCC will make it as easy as possible for willing broadcasters to participate in the auction. In practice, this means ensuring that broadcasters understand the rules of the road and that their participation does not require an army of economists or mathematicians. There should be low barriers to entry. The process will take time, and in all likelihood will require the cooperation of those such as NAB and APTS, that truly represent broadcasters. These broadcast advocates want to weigh the potential benefits of participation, not just quick-hit investors looking to turn a quick profit because of the government’s unique offer to buy back licenses.

    NAB has been engaged with the FCC to ensure the auction’s success and viewer protection from start to finish. Success for us includes, but goes far beyond, those looking to profit on their licenses. So, when Congress, the FCC and the public ask where broadcasters stand, and how can we ensure success for the auction – both for participants and non-participants – they should look to NAB and APTS. These associations represent America’s television broadcasters – not just companies that happen to hold licenses – and are focused on both the short- and long-term success of the industry. 

  • Rick Kaplan 11:47 am on June 25, 2013 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Genachowski, Spectrum, Spectrum Act, Wireless   

    What Consensus Really Means and the Importance of Driving It 

    In December, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee conducted an oversight hearing on the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) implementation of the Spectrum Act, and specifically the Commission’s work on the upcoming voluntary broadcast incentive auction. One of the most instructive moments of the hearing occurred during a series of questions posed to then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski by Rep. Ed Markey (MA-5). The congressman repeatedly asked Genachowski varying versions of the following questions:

    So again, do you have a process that’s totally fair to the broadcasters and to the wireless industry that’s in place? Have you had them in your office simultaneously with their engineers to talk about the issue so that you can hear and your experts can hear the differences which they have?

    . . . .

    Do you ever have a meeting yourself with the engineers in the room with the other, you know, from all industries you’re sitting there with you? Are engineers hearing the disagreements?

    The congressman was pushing the chairman to see if he and/or his staff were taking an active leadership role and directly engaging with industry to tackle this extremely complex proceeding. In effect, he was urging the FCC to drive consensus – to bring stakeholders together to see if there is a sweet spot where those most affected by the auction can find value and buy into the process. Thus, rather than passively perusing the filed comments in a back room and then eventually one day producing a final order seemingly out of thin air, he was suggesting that the FCC should be getting everyone in a room and driving towards a decision.

    Had that happened yet at that point? No.

    Has it happened in the more than six months since the Commission was urged to do so? No. (That is, unless we count a lone public workshop that was followed up in record time by a Public Notice unsurprisingly having little to do with what was actually achieved at the workshop).

    In the absence of a staff process designed to drive consensus through openness, transparency and engagement, however, diverse industries and public interest groups have assembled on our own to work through the various challenges presented by the auction and attendant broadcaster repacking. These conversations have led to a great deal of progress, and even consensus on some major issues.

    Have we found unanimity? Of course not. To be clear; reaching consensus is not the same thing as unanimity. Certainly everyone doesn’t have to agree for a general consensus to emerge. Our work has moved the ball far down the field on typically contentious issues. And we believe strongly that the Commission staff should have adopted, and should be adopting, a “get in the room together” approach so we can achieve an expeditious and successful conclusion to the pre-auction process.

    Industry and public interest progress is nowhere more apparent than the general consensus that emerged concerning the defining feature of the band plan offered in the original incentive auction Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which widely separated the wireless uplinks and downlinks and placed in between them high-powered broadcast operations. By sitting down together – outside the traditional and somewhat opaque FCC comment process – every company and organization invested in the outcome of the auction (except literally one) agreed that the proposal was an engineering nonstarter. This conclusion was facilitated by broadcast, licensed wireless and unlicensed wireless engineers conferring, sharing information and working towards what would best serve the public interest.

    Last Friday, the FCC posted a blog entitled, “A Band Plan that Serves the Public Interest,” which along with some previous staff remarks, appears to imply in response to growing criticism over the staff’s proposed plans, that only the Commission, and not industry or the public interest community, has the public interest truly in mind. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in this instance where what is at stake is delivering high quality broadcast and wireless signals to consumers. Indeed, a band plan in the public interest is most likely to result from a process that engages stakeholders in a meaningful fashion and thoroughly examines all of the thorny issues involved.

    We do not appear, however, to be headed in that direction. Most notably, in its unyielding quest and determination for reclaiming variable amounts of spectrum in different markets, the inherent interference consequences of a variable approach are simply being ignored. The staff steadfastly refuses to study the issue with any rigor, model it or even ask a single question about it.

    With respect to the challenges of variability, NAB has itself adopted a “getting everyone in the room” philosophy, even without the incentive auction staff leading the way. At stake is significant co- and adjacent channel interference that affects broadcast and wireless operations and arises under most variable band plans. The problem in the most basic terms is this: If Market A (e.g., New York) clears less spectrum than adjacent Market B (e.g., Philadelphia) and therefore Market A continues to have broadcast operations on channel X (e.g., channel 46) while Market B moves to wireless operations on that same channel, the wireless and broadcast operations on that shared channel will interfere with one another. There is no doubt this is a serious issue. And even though the Wireless Bureau dismissed the problem without any analysis (in a nonsensical footnote in its Public Notice), following the bureau’s Public Notice, AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Qualcomm, Ericsson and others have joined in to second the notion that further work on the subject is required.

    We understand why variability could be of great benefit to the Commission’s auction designers at Stanford, but its potential positives do not necessitate that we should turn a blind eye to inconvenient engineering realities. As we’ve learned from a number of interference missteps in the not-so-distant past, including the frustration on the part of the wireless industry with the interference between channel 51 and the 700 MHz A block, even if you look the other way and pretend there’s nothing to see, interference will come back to bite you where it counts one way or another.

    Even though we’ve identified a serious concern, we are not arguing that we are at the end of the variability road. We are merely stating that we’ve identified a potentially fundamental problem and, at the very least, this must be the beginning of the road. It’s not enough to say, as the blog post did, that “[b]y implementing a band plan that supports variation between markets, we would not be forced to limit the auction to the amount of spectrum available in the least cleared markets.” While true, that completely neglects the question precedent of whether, from an engineering perspective, variability is possible or even wise.

    Once again, rather than cross our fingers and simply hope that we don’t end up on the wrong end of an uninformed and therefore arbitrary decision, we’ve actively engaged with stakeholders across industries on the issue. We’ve laid out everything we know about co- and adjacent channel interference, not only in filings at the FCC, but in data we’ve openly shared throughout the commercial wireless and unlicensed industries.  We have one aim: to figure this issue out, one way or another, so that the Commission can truly have a successful and timely auction.

    We have also laid out an alternative plan should the interference inherent in variability not be worth its benefits. Our nationwide non-variable plan incorporates three relatively easy steps:

    • After setting a spectrum acquisition target (e.g., 84 MHz), lay out the various nationwide repacking scenarios to determine in what areas the Commission must have volunteers and how many it needs.
    • Determine how much revenue will likely be raised from a forward auction from the target amount of nationwide spectrum.
    • Use those anticipated (and soon to be realized) funds to pay broadcasters in areas where the spectrum is actually needed, and repack broadcasters to the nationwide spectrum target in markets where no volunteers are needed.

    This proposal helps the Commission maximize its use of the information it has up front – where it will, and will not, need participants under various scenarios – and then focus its financial incentive efforts on the areas where volunteers are truly needed. If this is done correctly, we believe the Commission can develop a great wireless band plan that clears the same robust amount in every market (international coordination notwithstanding), and leads to a harmonious balance between broadcasters and wireless operations in the new 600 MHz band. Furthermore, it eliminates the co- and adjacent channel interference threat that looms large under most variable scenarios.

    We remain committed to driving a process that is best for the public interest and thankfully the Acting Chair and Commissioners have each made clear that they recognize the need for engagement and balance among industries. By engaging with all stakeholders, we’ve been able to find large areas of general consensus on a number of issues, which should help the Commission move expeditiously in this process. We will continue this push, all with the aim of creating a band plan and auction that serves free, over-the-air broadcast viewers as well as licensed and unlicensed consumers, otherwise known as the public interest.

  • Rick Kaplan 11:36 am on May 21, 2013 Permalink
    Tags: Auction, , , , Spectrum   

    Working Toward an Effective Band Plan 

    Today AT&T, the National Association of Broadcasters and Verizon jointly posted the following blog:

    The TV broadcast spectrum incentive auction proceeding raises some of the most difficult engineering challenges the FCC has ever faced.  One thing is clear:  a successful auction must start with an effective band plan.  A band plan must seek to mitigate interference challenges to the greatest extent possible while offering blocks of spectrum best suited for deployment by U.S. wireless carriers.  Otherwise, it will drive down the value of the spectrum and likely undermine the auction’s success.

    With that in mind, broadcasters, wireless carriers and equipment manufacturers have spent an enormous amount of time, energy and expense reviewing and commenting on the optimal framework for the 600 MHz band.  Hundreds of pages of comments have been filed, two industry consensus letters have been submitted and the FCC just recently convened a day-long workshop to discuss this issue.  The result is growing consensus for adoption of a “down from 51” framework that seeks to maximize paired allocations and build guard bands only to meet engineering necessity.  This approach reflects the best collective engineering judgment of the companies most affected by the auction, including those that will spend billions of dollars to purchase 600 MHz licenses at auction and billions more to develop and deploy the spectrum in U.S. wireless networks.

    Despite these significant advances, on Chairman Julius Genachowski’s last day, a Public Notice was released seeking comment on two alternative band plan frameworks, one reversing the uplink and downlink allocations and one featuring time division duplex (TDD).  The first has absolutely no support in the record and the second adopts a technological approach contrary to the one proposed by the majority of U.S. carriers.  A fair reading of the Public Notice suggests that the FCC feels the consensus approach constrains its ability to adjust the band plan to meet market-by-market variations.  We believe, however, that this notice will consume resources better spent on dealing with other critical and as-yet-unanswered questions in this proceeding, such as how co-channel interference concerns could undermine the variability of any band plan and how the FCC plans to conduct an effective re-packing.

    Each of us of course will respond to the notice, but we don’t anticipate any fundamental shift in positions we’ve already taken in the record.  In the meantime, we are concerned about the apparent disconnect between the FCC and the various industries that will be critically affected by this auction.  Nothing about this auction will be easy, and, if we are to succeed, we must all work together to find solutions best designed to respond to broadcast industry concerns while meeting wireless industry requirements.

  • Lynn Claudy 10:58 am on March 29, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: Einstein, Spectrum,   

    You Don’t Have to Be Einstein to Understand Broadcasters Are Efficiently Using Spectrum 

    A bad combination last night — catching up on reading the latest in the broadcast spectrum debate followed by a book on the life and sayings of Albert Einstein.  Fell asleep, and dreamed of walking the tree-lined streets of Princeton with the Great Professor, discussing spectrum policy.  It went something like this:

    Me: It’s frustrating — we’re getting the facts out there about television broadcasters being extremely efficient spectrum users but the message just isn’t sinking in.  Almost every other day somebody criticizes broadcasters for “squatting” on spectrum. It’s unsubstantiated rhetoric from the uninformed, but the future of broadcasting is at stake.

    Einstein: “I never think about the future — it comes soon enough.”

    Me: Well, the future may be coming pretty fast now for serious consideration of broadcast spectrum reallocation. The selling job for how simple it would be to reallocate spectrum from television broadcasting to mobile broadband ignores a lot of important details, but a lot of people are buying into it.

    Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

    Me: Exactly.  Here’s an example of an argument about the inefficiency of broadcasting that is just way too simple to be true.  The argument goes like this: Broadcasters have 294 MHz of spectrum available in Washington DC — 49 channels between channel 2 and channel 51 — and…

    Einstein: But there are 50 channels between channel 2 and channel 51.

    Me: Sorry, I shouldn’t have over-simplified.  Channel 37 doesn’t count — it’s reserved for radio astronomy.  Anyway, we have to deal with these armchair analysts who will argue that there are 49 broadcast channels available in Washington DC but there are only about a dozen or so television stations, so the rest of the spectrum is being wasted.

    Einstein: Oh, I see what you mean.  So they ignore the fact that stations that operate on the same channel have to be a certain minimum distance apart so they won’t interfere with each other. And in congested areas, like the East Coast, the distance between cities is such that you just can’t re-use the same channels in nearby cities, so the total number of channels needed is a lot more than the number of stations in a given city.

    Me: You catch on quick.  And that’s true for operating on adjacent channels too, since television receivers don’t have the ability to perfectly filter out station signals in nearby cities that use adjacent channels, although you can use adjacent channels for stations in the same city.  But that means, for example, you can’t use the same channels or adjacent channels in Baltimore and Washington DC, since they’re only about 40 miles apart.  And if you add a third city close by, and a fourth, those 49 television channels don’t really go very far, not when you’re dealing with the over 1700 stations in the country.  So this attempt at a common sense theory that broadcasting could get by with far fewer channels without reducing the number of stations or reducing the service areas of those stations just doesn’t fit the facts.

    Einstein: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”

    Me: That’s about the size of it.

    Einstein: The adjacent channel angle is interesting.  How close adjacent channel stations can be to each other would be determined by the relative ability of receivers to reject those unwanted adjacent channel signals, no?  Are the interference rejection characteristics of the receiver population well known and reliable?

    Me: Not to a great degree of certainty.  Funny you should mention receiver characteristics though.  The FCC has never adopted mandated receiver standards for wireless services.  But an official at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which oversees government use of spectrum, just sent a letter to the FCC telling them that when designing new wireless services that will share the use of spectrum with other services, “one of the key steps in any analysis is identifying the interference protection criteria (IPC) of the incumbent receivers.” They also said “the FCC should seek comment on how the IPC values should be specified for incumbent receivers, and the specific IPC values to be used.”

    Current and former technical FCC officials also talked about the need for receiver standards recently and noted that the topic of receiver standards is one that will be addressed, and recommendations made, by the FCC Technological Advisory Council — hey, I’m a member of that group. The second public meeting of the Technological Advisory Council is on Wednesday of this week.

    In addition, NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith just sent a letter to key Congressional leaders pointing out that the FCC is starting to take notice that knowledge of receiver performance for rejecting interfering signals is critical to making the most efficient use of spectrum in designing wireless services.  Frankly, all this newfound interest in exploring obligations for receiver manufacturers to meet performance standards for the sake of efficient spectrum planning is a rather refreshing new approach.

    Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

    Me: I’m not sure whether you’re being cynical or ironic, but I certainly agree with the sentiment. And I’m sure you’ll appreciate that it’s really hard not to be cynical about politicians and regulators insisting that a broadcast spectrum re-allocation process will be all-voluntary for broadcasters.  Participating in incentive auctions, assuming that Congress authorizes them, might be voluntary actions.  But to clear the significant nationwide spectrum swath desired by the mobile broadband providers, broadcast stations will need to be re-packed, or re-located, into a smaller band of spectrum, and voluntary is not the word to describe that wide-scale operation of forcing stations to change channels.

    Re-packing the television channels to create cleared spectrum for mobile broadband without harming the incumbent broadcast service, if it’s possible at all, is a computationally intense math problem for really fast computers.  The FCC is developing this capability but all they’ve produced so far was released last June and showed really poor results — only one 6 MHz channel could be cleared nationwide by re-packing the existing broadcasters.  We’ve been waiting to see more refined results, or at least a detailed description of the Allotment Optimization Model’s algorithm for re-packing, but nothing has been made available so far.  If the computer model has something significant to offer, that would be a basis for further quantitative analysis.  Otherwise, this is more of a political debate.

    Einstein: “Politics is for the present but an equation is for eternity.”

    Me: That boils it down to the essentials. By the way, did you really say “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler?”

    Einstein: Well, it’s certainly been attributed to me by a lot of people.  What I really said was:

    “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

    But it essentially means the same thing, if you reduce the words to being as simple as possible, but no simpler.

    Me: That’s definitely irony, right?  Well, it was nice chatting with you today, even though it’s just a dream. I am infinitely indebted to you for your time and your insight about spectrum policy.

    Einstein: “Only two things are infinite; the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

    Me: I’m not touching that one.

  • Dennis Wharton 11:30 am on March 23, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: , Satellite, Spectrum,   

    Verbatim Quotes are Stubborn Things 

    It’s been said by cynics that the only real gaffe committed inside the Beltway is when someone actually tells the truth. That’s why we’ve gotten a chuckle out of the overheated protestations from our friends in the wireless industry after NAB submitted evidence from two top telecommunications industry executives suggesting that “Heck yes, we’re warehousing spectrum. So what?”

    Let’s review the bidding: Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen recently told investment analysts that his company made a speculative investment in spectrum because spectrum “has value, ‘just as an asset.'”

    That’s not new verbiage from Mr. Ergen. Indeed, on a November 2010 earnings call, the Dish CEO said that his company bought spectrum 700 MHz from broadcasters “as a building block…a pretty good inflation hedge, and they’re not making any more of that spectrum. If we’re not able to strategically do something with that spectrum, there’s probably other people who are able to do that.”

    According to the must read publication Communications Daily, Mr. Ergen elaborated on his investment: “I think one of the better things we did was that we resisted the temptation to go out and try to build it out and spend more money on the buildout for it without really knowing where we want to go…. I don’t know whether our timing’s right or not on 700MHz. At some point, that will be a valuable spectrum to somebody. And if we can figure out a way to use it, that’s good. If we can’t then somebody else will own it,” said Ergen.

    Dish Network apparently isn’t alone in its desire to squat on valuable airwaves. Communications Daily reported on Jan. 28 that Time Warner Cable has no plans to deploy recently acquired spectrum. Paraphrasing recent remarks on an analyst call from Time Warner Cable Chief Operating Officer Rob Marcus, respected Communications Daily reporter Josh Wein wrote that the company “has no plans to sell, lease or use its AWS spectrum licenses. … The recent AT&T acquisition of Qualcomm’s MediaFLO spectrum bodes well for the value of the cable operator’s spectrum holdings.”

    So there you have it: two massive telecom companies candidly admitting that they are in the business of sitting on valuable spectrum.

    When NAB pointed out these obviously newsworthy and noteworthy comments, spin doctors at both Time Warner Cable and Dish Network circled the wagons. Predictably, this strategy of denial was embraced by other telecom companies and trade associations who are apoplectic over the possibility of a serious unbiased spectrum inventory. God forbid there would be a serious and thorough review of whether companies that were given or bought spectrum are actually following through on timetables and promises to deploy it. After all, that would not fit into their neat little “spectrum crisis” tale that they’re foisting on Congress.

    The tap dancing of the telecom giants and their enablers brings to mind a famous scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Toto pulls back the curtain and exposes the fact that Oz has — in fact — no magical powers.

    In the movie, Dororthy and the Scarecrow were asked to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” — just like America is expected to pay no attention to verbatim spectrum hoarding admissions from Time Warner Cable and Dish Network.

  • Jennifer Jose 10:43 am on March 2, 2011 Permalink
    Tags: Spectrum, The Future of TV   

    Your Favorite TV Shows: Could Government Policy Impact Them? 

    I have a confession to make – I’m hooked on “American Idol.” Not many people know that about me. But it’s hard to resist watching when my 42” HDTV is beaming the vibrant colors of Jennifer Lopez’s dresses and Steven Tyler’s fabulous highlighted locks into my living room. And what’s even better is that I don’t have to pay anything to get my shows – I use an antenna and get all my favorite programs for free.

    Did you know that 98 of the top rated 100 shows are on broadcast television – not cable or satellite? They include shows such as my favorite “American Idol,” “Sunday Night Football” and “Dancing With the Stars.” Millions of viewers like me are loving their digital televisions and are buying HD sets for an even better viewing experience. (More …)

  • Dennis Wharton 3:59 pm on June 17, 2010 Permalink
    Tags: Comcast, , Free Press, Ivan Seidenberg, Spectrum, , Verizon   

    The overlooked spectrum squatters 

    SNL Kagan media reporter Tim Doyle uncovered an interesting factoid this week when he reported that SpectrumCo, a cable-backed consortium, is sitting on $2.4 billion worth of spectrum that the company purchased in 2006. The airwaves are unused, and according to Doyle’s report, “It does not seem as if that will change soon, either.”

    With intense focus from the FCC on broadcast TV spectrum as a “solution” to the nation’s alleged “looming spectrum crisis,” cable has been largely overlooked, a fact that has drawn jeers from both sides of an almost always disagreeable duo: Verizon and the consumer group Free Press.

    (More …)

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