Trade Group Sets off Debate Over Spectrum 'hoarding'

The National Association of Broadcasters, asked by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and some lawmakers to give up television spectrum for mobile data uses, has fired back by accusing several other companies of hoarding the spectrum they hold.

In recent weeks, the NAB has taken a new approach to its concern over a year-old FCC proposal that urges TV stations to voluntarily give up unused spectrum in exchange for a piece of the proceeds in a so-called incentive auction of that spectrum. NAB, an influential trade group, has gone on the offensive in recent weeks by suggesting that several spectrum holders, including Verizon Communications, AT&T and Time Warner Cable, have not developed the spectrum they already have.

"Maybe you should develop that spectrum before you come to broadcasters asking for 40 percent more of their spectrum," said Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president for media relations. "Why is it taking so long, if there really is a national spectrum crisis?"

NAB members believe they've given up enough spectrum in the transition to digital TV resulting in the 700MHz auctions that ended in early 2008, Wharton said. "We gave at the office," he added.

NAB doesn't oppose voluntary auctions, but the spectrum crunch seems likely to be a problem only in major cities, Wharton said. TV stations have their own uses for the targeted spectrum, he added.

"We are using this spectrum to deliver the primary video signal that broadcasters delivered in the analog era, along with digital multicast channels that offer niche programming like weather channels, foreign-language channels, religious programming, kids' TV shows and even high school sports in some markets -- all for free," he said. "Spectrum will also be used to deliver live and local mobile digital TV to smartphones, laptops and the back seats of cars."

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, mobile trade group CTIA and individual mobile carriers have long argued there's a coming spectrum shortage, with data use on mobile devices skyrocketing. In its national broadband plan released a year ago, the FCC proposed to make 500MHz of spectrum available for mobile uses over the next decade, with 120MHz coming from the TV bands.

NAB's position strikes of "incongruity," given that broadcasters are sitting on spectrum that's used to deliver over-the-air TV signals, a service that's "dropping like a stone" in popularity, Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, wrote in a blog post Friday.

"NAB ... insinuated the problem isn't their own massive warehousing and underuse of precious spectrum resources," he wrote. "Instead, the problem is everyone else."

Several other groups, including CTIA and the Consumer Electronics Association, have denounced the NAB's accusations as an effort to sidetrack the debate over spectrum needs.

The spectrum-hoarding complaints are a "desperate attempt by the broadcast industry to deflect attention from the looming national spectrum crisis," the two trade groups said in a letter to congressional leaders Thursday. "NAB has once again endeavored to search for any hint of outlier instances where spectrum allegedly is not being put to productive use -- a point that has been consistently refuted."

The letter from CTIA and CEA came a day after the NAB criticized the FCC for not completing a detailed spectrum inventory.

On Wednesday, the FCC's Genachowski, in a speech at the Mobile Future Forum, said the agency has completed a "baseline" spectrum inventory. Genachowski also refuted several points being made by the NAB, although he didn't call out the NAB by name.

"The spectrum crunch will not be solved by the build-out of already allocated spectrum," Genachowski said. "That spectrum was already built into the FCC's analysis of the spectrum shortage and does not detract from the desirability and necessity of adding the incentive auction tool to the FCC's arsenal."

The baseline inventory the FCC has completed tells the agency "more than enough" to conclude incentive auctions are needed, Genachowski said.

"Our inventory confirms that there are no hidden vacant lots of commercial airwaves, but that there are a few areas well-suited to mobile broadband, such as the TV and [mobile satellite services] bands," he added.

The FCC has not released the results of its baseline spectrum inventory, and spectrum holders are generally reluctant to talk about how much idle spectrum they own. That's led the NAB -- and other groups -- to call for a more complete spectrum inventory.

"The question is not whether the FCC can identify locations and licenses on the spectrum dashboard that have been set aside for specific services," Wharton said. "The real issue is whether specific companies that bought or were given spectrum worth billions have actually deployed it."

Several spectrum owners have denied the NAB claims, saying they're moving forward with plans to develop spectrum they've won at auction in recent years. AT&T has spent nearly US$8 billion on recent 700MHz and AWS auctions, but that spectrum is the foundation of the company's 4G LTE network, launching in mid-2011, Joan Marsh, the carrier's vice president of federal regulatory affairs, wrote in a February blog post.

NAB's claims of mobile carriers being spectrum hoarders is an "astonishing display of denial and false accusation," Marsh wrote.

Still, NAB points to instances where spectrum holders have no immediate plans. DISH Network, the satellite TV company, paid $711 million for a near-nationwide swath of spectrum in the 2008 700MHz auctions.

During a November conference call on DISH's third-quarter earnings, a participant asked DISH President and CEO Charles Ergen about the company's plans for its 70MHz holdings. Ergen called the spectrum an "investment."

"It's a building block, potentially strategically, for things we might want to do in the future," he said, according to a transcript on SeekingAlpha.com. "It is, as it turns out, 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, then there's probably other people who are able to do that."

DISH has been "very conservative" about building out the spectrum without knowing what it wants to do with it yet, Ergen added. "I don't know whether our timing's right or not on 700MHz," he said. "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."

DISH has used past spectrum allocations to deliver service to its customers, said Marc Lumpkin, the company's director of corporate communications. In the 700MHz spectrum, "we're exploring the best use of it," he said.

Some mobile users question whether the carriers are efficiently using the spectrum they now have, said Robb Topolski, a veteran networking engineer and frequent critic of the large carriers. Topolski questioned poor coverage by Verizon on parts of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

"Our wireless spectrum is a public asset and we lease it like we lease other public assets for the public good," he said. "When it is sold, it is sold with the intention that it will be used -- it does someone good. Hoarding it provides none of those public benefits, and the government ought to reclaim any unused bandwidth and put it to work for the people."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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