I don’t normally get worked up by much that comes of out Washington, DC these days – it’s apparent that politicians have no limit to the levels they can sink to.
But the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing effort to reclaim broadcast TV spectrum in an attempt to ‘solve’ a so-called ‘wireless broadband crisis’ has reached absurd levels. And it is time to call them out on it.
Let me first set the table by stating that, a long, long time ago in a country far, far away, the FCC was actually a respected organization that had some actual engineering expertise. The FCC was created in 1934 to replace the Federal Radio Commission. As part of the 1934 Act that birthed the FCC, it was charged with “..regulating the airwaves in the public interest.” Not in the interests of big corporations like Verizon, AT&T, Qualcomm, or Google. In OUR interests.
The interpretation back then was that the radio spectrum (television hadn’t made its debut yet) belonged to the citizens of the United States. And the FCC would regulate how it was used to the benefit of all.
As new communication modes came into existence, the FCC was there to test-drive them and ultimately approve them for everyday use. FM broadcasting, television, Doppler radar, satellites, cellular phones – all became an integral part of our lives after thorough vetting by the FCC’s engineering staff, many of whom (like me) also held amateur radio licenses and could ‘walk the talk’ then it came to the latest technical terminology.
The FCC also regulated ‘common carriers,’ i.e. telephone companies. They approved tariffs and made sure rural areas had access to service. When television took off in the 1950s, the FCC had the foresight to add more channels in the UHF spectrum, and when TV manufacturers were reluctant to add tuners to their TV sets to enable viewing of those channels, the FCC simply made them do it with the All Channel Receiver Act of 1962. Otherwise, the nascent UHF television broadcast service would have died a premature death.
I got my first amateur radio license in 1970 after playing around with pirate AM and FM stations in high school. Back then, you didn’t mess with the FCC, and the appearance of one of their dreaded unmarked gray vans in your neighborhood meant they were on to your illegal radio station – so you pulled the plug, and fast.
In short, the FCC was the perfect umpire for our nation’s spectrum. They knew the technology inside and out, they tried to balance the needs of big corporations with the little guys, and they made sure everyone responsible for a single radio emission knew what the hell they were doing, and were held accountable for it.
Today? The FCC is a joke. I never thought I’d say that, but they have become a laughing stock. They are purely a political organization that is rapidly losing its best engineering talent, and exists merely to identify more spectrum that can be auctioned off to private interests so that Congress can continue to fill its insatiable appetite for money. (It turns out, we do have the best politicians money can buy, as Mark Twain once pointed out.)
Need proof of how low the FCC has sunk? How about the two rounds of ‘white space devices’ testing that the Office of Engineering Technology undertook a few years ago? (White space devices are low-power gadgets for wireless connectivity of media players, TVs, and other goodies in the home, and are intended to work in the UHF TV band.)
All of the devices failed both rounds of tests. Many did not detect strong active digital TV broadcasts on the same frequency! Some took an eternity to scan for active channels.
In short, these devices clearly weren’t ready for prime time. The old FCC would have sent their manufacturers packing in a hurry.
But the ‘new’ FCC? Why, they approved the concept,saying in effect, “Even though none of these gadgets ever worked correctly, you all seem to be nice people and pretty smart, so we’ll assume you can fix the problems.” This, after virtually every manufacturer of wireless microphones, lobbyists for theme parks, Broadway show producers, TV networks, the NAB, church groups, and professional AV associations lined up against white space devices.
So now, just two years after the completion of a difficult transition from analog to digital television – one that has brought us better picture quality (well, in most cases) and free HDTV to communities all over the country, and one that gave up channels 52 through 69 to public safety agencies and private interests, like Qualcomm’s failed FLO service – the FCC wants to take away another 120 MHz (20 channels) of UHF TV spectrum for its manufactured wireless broadband crisis.
To do that, over 600 TV stations currently operating in the UHF TV band will have to relocate. Unlike the analog to digital TV transition, there will be no opportunity to ‘simulcast’ on a new channel while winding down operations on the channel to be given up. These stations will simply have to shut down, install new transmitters and antennas, run coverage tests, and only then light up again.
In a classic case of Orwellian language, the FCC is saying that broadcasters will be invited to participate in a ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and decide if they want to give up their UHF channel in return for financial considerations. (Look how far we’ve come from the Federal Communications Act of 1934: The FCC is now offering bribes to get broadcasters to move, or shut down!)
Anyone who has ever dealt with the government knows that the term ‘voluntary’ is meaningless. If the FCC doesn’t get enough broadcasters to move, then they’ll simply change the rules to get those channels one way or another. It’s a sham.
How will this affect free, over-the-air TV viewers? Well, if you live in Syracuse NY, ALL of your digital TV channels are UHF. Ditto for all but channel 7 in Boston and San Francisco , Huntsville AL, most channels in Denver, Portland ME, most channels in New Orleans, all but one channel in Salt Lake City – well, you get the idea.
The question no one is asking is this: Why not look somewhere else for new broadband spectrum? What about the old analog cellular phone band around 800 MHz? What about the hundreds of MHz the government has allocated to itself on a primary basis for whatever purpose?
You see, the UHF television band used to go all the way to channel 83. But it’s been whittled down several times since the 1950s, and in fact broadcasters have already given back 192 MHz of spectrum for other services in the past 40 years. In my eyes, they’ve done their part already, several times over.
The UHF TV band is better suited for digital TV for a number of reasons. It penetrates into buildings better than high-band VHF channels 7 to 13 (forget trying that with low-band VHF channels 2 through 6). It is easier to design compact, high-gain antennas for UHF digital TV reception. And antennas for the new portable MH digital TV receivers are quite small – only 5 inches is needed for a quarter-wave antenna @ 600 MHz, right around channel 35.
Did you know that ALL TV broadcasting moved to UHF channels in Great Britain in the 1970s after the move to color TV? UHF TV channels were deemed to be much more suitable for the regional broadcasting services. Made plenty of sense then, and makes plenty of sense now.
But there’s no use explaining any of this to the FCC, particularly its chairman, Julius Genachowski. To me, he is the consummate political animal and bureaucrat. He is bound and determined to go after TV broadcasters once again and chop off another limb to satisfy his friends at CTIA and the big telecoms. And you will suffer for it.
One of the few really good deals left to recession-weary Americans these days – who are being nickel-and-dimed to death with monthly service fees for cable, satellite, broadband, and mobile phones – is free, over-the-air digital TV and HDTV. Many of you who have ‘cut the cord’ or are contemplating doing so, relying on a mix of OTA TV programs and Internet video, are going to get screwed if this so-called ‘voluntary’ spectrum auction and re-allocation goes through.
Apparently the FCC doesn’t care about saving Americans money, or supporting a diverse, 1700 station-strong free digital TV ecosystem that provides local news, weather, entertainment, sports – again, much of this in HDTV – without costing a dime. Nope, we desperately need more channels to fix our wireless broadband crisis!
Did you know that, in a candid moment last year, the head of Verizon said they weren’t using all of their channel capacity for wireless mobile phone and data service?
Did you know that the UHF TV spectrum is not the best choice for a wireless broadband service? (No, let’s instead move UPWARDS in frequency a few hundred megahertz.)
So, what are you going to to about it? Do you live in a TV market with mostly or all UHF channels? Do you enjoy watching free HDTV programs? Do you realize the disruption this FCC action will cause?
Then get on the phone, or email or write to your congressional representatives in the House and Senate and tell them to put a short leash on the FCC. Tell them to have a full spectrum inventory conducted and made available for public inspection.
Ask them why they would allow the FCC to take away one of the few good deals left to Americans during this time of economic stress, a TV service that more than 15% of the population relies on exclusively (over 30% among Hispanic households).
Ask them why the telecommunications industry gets what it wants, but the average John and Jane Doe – who were the supposed beneficiaries of the Communications Act of 1934 – are usually left holding the bag.
And tell the FCC this: STOP! Enough, already!
Posted by Pete Putman, July 26, 2011 9:09 AM
About Pete PutmanPeter Putman is the president of ROAM Consulting L.L.C. His company provides training, marketing communications, and product testing/development services to manufacturers, dealers, and end-users of displays, display interfaces, and related products.
Pete edits and publishes HDTVexpert.com, a Web blog focused on digital TV, HDTV, and display technologies. He is also a columnist for Pro AV magazine, the leading trade publication for commercial AV systems integrators.