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Radio and TV broadcasters on the defensive in D.C.

November 17, 2009 |  2:27 pm

The Consumer Electronics Assn. and the CTIA (the main trade group for the mobile phone industry) urged the Federal Communications Commission today to consider reclaiming some digital TV airwaves and dedicating them to use with wireless devices. The chief executives of the CEA and CTIA sent a joint letter to members of the FCC, reminding them that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 required the commission to review how the digital TV airwaves were being used within 10 years of the first licenses being granted for DTV channels. Those licenses were issued nearly 11 years ago, so a review is technically overdue (not that deadlines seem to matter much in Washington). Said review is supposed to determine whether broadcasters could get by with less spectrum as well as evaluate alternative uses. According to the CEA-CTIA letter:

This spectrum is uniquely suited for mobile broadband applications, devices and services –
it has highly favorable propagation characteristics and is directly adjacent to the 700 and
800 MHz spectrum utilized by the commercial wireless industry. We therefore urge the
commission to take immediate action to initiate the congressionally-mandated evaluation
of broadcast television spectrum usage.

The DTV channels are extremely valuable, and broadcasters have tried for several years to find ways to use them for more than just high-definition TV signals -- for example, by transmitting a version of their programs that's customized for mobile devices, or leasing part of their channel to data service providers. They've also fiercely resisted the high-tech industry's push to allow unlicensed uses of empty TV channels -- the so-called white spaces -- in areas where it might interfere with local broadcasts. (The FCC sided with the tech firms last year, but the decision is under appeal.) But the FCC is under orders from Congress to develop a national plan for increasing the supply of broadband connectivity, and Chairman Julius Genachowski has said that the demand for wireless broadband will soon be an order of magnitude greater than the supply (a situation that Genachowski has called the "looming spectrum crisis"). So the commission may be unusually receptive to the idea of forcing TV stations to share more of their spectrum wealth.

But then, the National Assn. of Broadcasters has some powerful friends on Capitol Hill. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and still a formidable player, sent a letter to the FCC yesterday expressing concern about any move to devote digital TV airwaves to other uses. Quoth Dingell: "I believe that a further loss of spectrum by broadcasters may have an adverse effect on consumers by limiting their choice in available broadcast television."

Meanwhile, NAB officials started meeting in the Capitol today with representatives of the Recording Industry Assn. of America and musicians' unions to discuss a compromise approach to performance royalties -- which the NAB refers to as a performance tax on radio stations -- under the auspices of the chairmen and senior members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. Members of the Democratic leadership are expected to drop by the sessions, raising the heat on the NAB to capitulate. Although the broadcasters' lobby has lined up 252 House members and 27 senators behind resolutions opposing new royalties for performing music publicly (on the air or at a business, such as a bar), both Judiciary committees have passed bills that would have a federal arbitration panel set royalties that local radio stations would have to pay. The bills also would set limits on the annual royalty payments for smaller businesses, public and religious broadcasters.

Looks like the broadcasters' lobbyists will be stuck playing defense for a while.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division. Follow him on Twitter: @jcahealey

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