The airwaves are getting so crowded, TV channels have started doubling up

January 28

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The wireless lobby is partnering with two Los Angeles-based television stations in a pilot project that could, in the long run, lead to better cellular service and more efficient TV operations.

KLCS, a public broadcasting station, and KJLA, a local commercial station, are about to try something known as channel-sharing — packing their two signals into the same chunk of airwaves while attempting to avoid interfering with each other. The project is backed by CTIA, the main industry group representing wireless carriers.

It's a crucial test of technology. If all goes as planned, it could encourage more broadcasters to give up their portion of the wireless spectrum, sell it to the government and relocate to other parts of the spectrum that are already occupied by different TV stations. Any reclaimed airwaves will boost a federal attempt to auction off TV spectrum to wireless carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile, who will in turn use it to upgrade mobile networks.

The so-called "incentive auction" is a big deal for the Federal Communications Commission, which has never tried anything like it. An FCC spokesperson welcomed the announcement.

"Channel sharing represents a unique option for broadcasters that wish to continue to broadcast over-the-air programming, while also taking advantage of the incentive auction’s once-in-a-lifetime financial opportunity," the spokesperson said.

Here's how all this is going to work. Every major television station has a license to operate within a 6 MHz band of spectrum. Over time, said Alan Popkin, KLCS's top engineer, technology has made it possible for broadcasters to use that allocation more efficiently — such that what was once a single TV channel now supports multiple broadcast channels. The idea is to fill those channels with stations serving different programming.

According to CTIA's Scott Bergmann, the pilot will also test "different combinations of SD and HD signals" in an effort to see what configurations channel sharing can reasonably support.

While a spokeswoman for the public broadcasters, Lonna Thompson, declined to comment on how many such stations might be interested in giving up their airwaves, she said that many would be watching the test with interest.

As many as 70 other TV stations have already expressed interest anonymously in giving up their spectrum — though skeptics of the auction say the FCC will need to attract hundreds of broadcasters to make it successful. Preston Padden, a former president of ABC who's leading the interested group, also commended Tuesday's announcement promoting channel sharing.

"Sharing stations get to continue broadcasting and get a big check," he said. "What's not to like?"

The broadcast industry signaled its openness but pointed out that reducing the amount of spectrum available to each station might make it harder for them to introduce new, spectrum-intensive services. Examples of these might include broadcasts at Ultra HD resolution or other coming advancements in display technology.

A full report on the pilot project addressing the technical feasibility of channel sharing — but not its cost or impact on business models — is expected to drop in March.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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