Broadcasters Pressed to Relinquish Spectrum Space
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Robert Siegel.
Nearly a decade ago, the federal government gave the TV industry the right to broadcast on a new range of frequencies, also known as broadcast spectrum. The idea was to help TV stations change over to digital technology. Now the transition is well under way, and some powerful members of Congress say it's time for broadcasters to return some of their spectrum. Broadcasters say it's still too soon. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI reporting:
The spectrum in question is among the most valuable parts of the nation's airwaves, and all kinds of companies are itching to use it.
Ms. JANICE OBUCHOWSKI (DTV Coalition): The spectrum we're talking about at 700 megahertz is what people call beachfront property.
ZARROLI: Janice Obuchowski heads the high-tech DTV Coalition, an alliance of technology companies. Obuchowski says this spectrum is especially suited for offering new wireless broadband services at a lower cost. It can be used to extend broadband to underserved rural areas, or provide improved radio services for first-responders. She says unleashing the potential of this spectrum would be a boon for the US economy.
Ms. OBUCHOWSKI: This spectrum, that really could be a driver for a great deal of growth in our economy, is laying fallow.
ZARROLI: Congress never intended broadcasters to keep so much spectrum. The idea was that they would use the new spectrum they'd been given to convert to digital technology. Meanwhile, they would continue their regular, or analog, broadcasts over the same part of the airwaves they've always used. But once 85 percent of the households in each market can receive digital pictures, broadcasters have to give the old spectrum back. At last month's National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas said that time is fast approaching.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): The market is beginning to go digital. Regions in the country are probably already at the 85 percent threshold. Why not take a hard date?
ZARROLI: Barton, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, wants to set a cutoff date for broadcasters to return the spectrum, but broadcasters warn that a cutoff would make it impossible for them to transmit analog pictures. That doesn't matter if you have cable or satellite, but some 20 million households don't, and their sets would suddenly be rendered obsolete. Eddie Fritz is the NAB's chairman.
Mr. EDDIE FRITZ (Chairman, National Association of Broadcasters): This could disenfranchise millions of Americans from access to their local television stations. It's easy to understand why a premature cutoff of analog broadcasting could lead to total marketplace confusion.
ZARROLI: And no member of Congress wants to hear from thousands of constituents whose television sets have suddenly stopped working. Consumers can buy converter boxes that enable their older sets to receive digital pictures, but even with converter boxes, older sets won't get full digital reception.
Some critics say the real reason broadcasters want to hold on to their extra spectrum is they're afraid what will happen if it's auctioned off. Andrew J. Schwartzman is president of the Media Access Project.
Mr. ANDREW J. SCHWARTZMAN (President, Media Access Project): It's some of the most desirable spectrum on the entire band and, as such, could be used by various technologies, some of which would be competitive with broadcasters. So they just want it to stall. They've really been playing stall without a clear vision of what to do.
ZARROLI: Schwartzman says that kind of strategy may have worked in the past, but he believes that with the furor over indecency and media bias, members of Congress may have become less sympathetic to broadcasters these days.
There's also the issue of money. If Congress can force broadcasters to return the extra spectrum, it can be auctioned off for tens of billions of dollars. At a time when the government is deep in the red, such a windfall can seem pretty attractive to legislators. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.