Broadcasters resist plan to cede airwaves

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011

Many broadcasters are already worried about declining viewers, and now they say the government wants to take away something more: the airwaves themselves.

That's because mobile Internet providers need more room to expand their fast-growing wireless networks. Every new product, like last week's announcement of an iPhone for Verizon Wireless, ratchets up the demand for mobile data services.

With mobile networks expected to handle 35 times as much Internet traffic over the next five years as they do now, the Federal Communications Commission worries that the nation's wireless system will bog down under the strain, and has proposed a plan to repurpose spectrum now reserved for television channels.

But the broadcasters - still smarting over having to surrender spectrum two years ago for digital television - say they need those airwaves to compete with their flashy new rivals with products such as live mobile TV.

The disagreement has set the stage for a battle between the FCC and broadcasters, who have vowed to fight any government mandates that force them to move off channels they use for "Family Guy" and the evening news in order to bolster Internet connections to Droids, iPhones and Xoom tablets.

"You can't take that much spectrum from broadcasters and not have devastating consequences for delivery of mobile digital television, HDTV and other innovative services," said Dennis Wharton, vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

But the FCC says it is looking toward the future.

"We know of the opportunity mobile innovation represents for our economy and for job creation," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in an interview. "We also know the threat is that if our invisible infrastructure isn't up to the task, it will hurt customers and innovators who will shift their focus to other markets."

In all, the FCC is proposing a voluntary auction of about 120 megahertz of additional television spectrum - but it would take at least a year for the agency to get permission from Congress and cooperation from hundreds of stations around the country. Much of that spectrum, between channels 31 and 51, isn't being used, but some broadcasters fear existing programming on those channels could be moved to less attractive swaths of airwaves.

Telecom and high-tech companies support the FCC's plan, which would be the federal government's fourth major rollout of airwaves for cellphone use. Most recently, it sold $20 billion of spectrum in 2008 for high-speed Internet networks that are just now being rolled out by Verizon Wireless and other carriers. But the demand is expected to strip even that supply.

Each mobile Internet user is expected to use four times as much data by 2015. A streaming video gobbles up about 100 times as much bandwidth as a phone call - and new technologies are coming fast.

Companies will use machines that communicate with each other for business tasks through wireless connections. Cars will be equipped with mobile Internet connections that help drivers navigate roads and feed streaming videos to headrests. Appliances will wirelessly connect to energy meters to use the least amount of energy possible.

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