FCC Proposes Using TV Broadcast Spectrum for Mobile Broadband

The FCC says it wasn't easy to clear spectrum for digital TV, and it won't be easy to clear it to meet growing mobile broadband needs. But it needs to happen, and pronto.

The Federal Communications Commission is proposing that some broadcast television airwaves be used to meet the nation's growing demand for mobile broadband services, which is being driven by widespread smartphone adoption and the increasing use of mobile devices such as laptops and tablets.

The Obama administration has suggested making 500Mhz of spectrum from television stations available for mobile broadband use, and the FCC's proposal, announced Nov. 30, would work toward that end, allowing for voluntary auctions of broadcast spectrum, which would help to meet the need for broadband while preserving that other American necessity: free television service.

Describing spectrum as "invisible infrastructure," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the latter was at an inflection point. "The explosive growth in mobile communications threatens to outpace the infrastructure on which it relies," Genachowski said in a statement. "If we don't act to update our spectrum policies for the 21st century, we're going to run into a wall-a spectrum crunch-that will stifle American innovation and economic growth and cost us the opportunity to lead the world in mobile communications."

Genachowski compared broadcast digital television transmissions to trains pulling boxcars, many of which are empty but could be shared, and filled, by two or more channels-an efficiency that current rules don't allow.

"This spectrum is too valuable-and our spectrum needs too great-for it to be used inefficiently," he said.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC suggests giving broadband providers equal access to television broadcast frequencies made available through spectrum auctions, as well as enabling broadcasters to voluntarily combine their operations on a single TV channel. It also seeks comment on steps to improve TV reception on the VHF channels-channels 2 through 13-such as establishing minimum performance standards.

Genachowski emphasized the need to move forward with these ideas, and in a hurry, and pointed to the challenges it faced when it first worked to carve out spectrum for digital television.

"We know it will not be easy to free up spectrum for mobile broadband from the existing broadcast TV band. Neither was the process that led to the DTV transition and resulting freeing of spectrum," he said in the statement. "Yet it is at least as necessary as the process that began more than 20 year ago. And, because of how fast our global competitors are moving, it's essential that we move rapidly. We don't have anywhere close to 20 years."

During the first three quarters of 2010, approximately 200.6 million phones shipped worldwide, research firm IDC reported Nov. 5. The growth of data-devouring smartphones has been particularly swift, with totals reaching 81.1 million units during the third quarter, nearly double the 42.8 million units that shipped during the same quarter a year ago.

Analysis firms have also raised their estimates for annual sales of media tablet, which are being led by the Apple iPad. Despite tablet sales cutting into PC sales, netbook shipments also rose by 103 percent in 2009, over the totals a year before. While they're no longer enjoying growth at a "meteoric pace," IDC analyst Jeff Orr said in an October report, they're still posting "good growth."