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Opinion: National Broadband Plan Recommendation 5.8.5 is Not in the Public Interest

I've received several e-mails in recent days regarding the FCC's National Broadband Plan (NBP) and its impact on free digital television broadcasting. Rather than answering many individual e-mails, I will simply make an overall post about the subject, in which I will respond to the various points made in the document.

First of all, as someone who lives in a rural area of Virginia, I am fully supportive of efforts to provide rural broadband, so long as it is done properly. I am a firm believer that we must run fiber optic cables to every home in the same way we ran electricity and telephone cables to every home. Though the chances of this are slim, it is the only way to ensure that Internet connected services, which become more and more important every day, are available to all. If I have only 4 Mbps available to me by 2020, as suggested in the NBP, that means effectively that HD video delivered by the Internet will not be available to me or to others in rural areas. Fiber optic cabling would prevent such inequality in connection speeds.

Now, on to the plan and its impact on over the air (OTA) television.

Recommendation 5.8.5: The FCC should initiate a rule-making proceeding to reallocate 120 megahertz from the broadcast television (TV) bands, including:

  • Update rules on TV service areas and distance separations and revise the Table of Allotments to ensure the most efficient allotment of six-megahertz channel assignments as a starting point.
  • Establish a licensing framework to permit two or more stations to share a six-megahertz channel.
  • Determine rules for auctions of broadcast spectrum reclaimed through repacking and voluntary channel sharing.
  • Explore alternatives—including changes in broadcast technical architecture, an overlay license auction or more extensive channel sharing—in the event the preceding recommendations do not yield a significant amount of spectrum.
  • Take additional measures to increase efficiency of spectrum use in the broadcast TV bands.

These points are rather scary to read, as they essentially call for the decimation of over the air broadcasting. Reading further into this recommendation, we find that the FCC has decided this plan of action based simply on auction results. Simply put, people charging a subscription fee will pay more than those offering a free service based on advertising. Also, the sky is blue, and water is wet.

What auction revenue does not tell us is the value of the service being provided, nor the efficiency. Examining the efficiency, we find that broadcast television is the most efficient method for providing local emergency information and local news. If a local newscast is watched by 50,000 viewers, dividing 50,000 by the 6 MHz channel results in 120 Hz per person. Not megahertz, not kilohertz, but hertz. If that newscast has only 10,000 viewers, the result is 600 Hz per person. Even dialup internet access gets 4 kHz to play with and I suspect most readers know how sluggish dialup is.

Further, live events that many people are watching at once should be handled using broadcast. The Super Bowl and other live sporting events, in addition to live news coverage, new episodes of TV programs, all of these things are clearly things that a lot of people will want to watch all at the same time, and the best way to do this is through free, over the air broadcasting.

The FCC is very quick to dismiss Mobile DTV even though it has yet to get off the ground. Many stations that have expressed interest in testing the technology are still waiting to receive the gear, while some stations which were not on the initial list have begun ATSC-M/H transmissions. The standard was only finalized at the end of last year, and it takes time for receivers to be designed and manufactured and to appear on the market. For the FCC to dismiss it out of hand is exceptionally short-sighted; in comparison to the slow starts many other popular technologies today got, Mobile DTV is moving at light speed. Mobile DTV must be given a chance to fail or succeed in the marketplace before the FCC makes rash decisions on its viability as a service.

As far as value is concerned, in a way, broadcast television is becoming what HF communications and ham radio are: Not terribly important when the world is going swimmingly, but dependable and reliable when disaster strikes. In disaster situations like September 11, cell phone networks were overloaded, and if data networks were prevalent, they also would have been locked up. Broadcast TV, on its dedicated spectrum, was able to provide continuing coverage to the millions of people wanting to see it. If forced to depend on streaming video over packet switched networks, information would have been scarce due to overloaded servers and switches. In addition, broadcast TV stations have invested heavily in generators and redundant equipment in order to be able to provide these services even in the worst of circumstances. The same cannot be said for providers of Internet infrastructure.

There's also the question of how accurate the OTA usage statistics are. Now, I encourage others to correct me if I'm wrong, but I have been under the impression that if any one TV in a household is connected to cable or satellite, then the whole household is considered to not be using OTA. This means that any other TVs in the household dependent solely on OTA television are not counted. If my impression is correct, then what are the correct statistics for the number of OTA users? How many people would actually be harmed by the reduction or elimination of OTA choices? These things should be taken into account as well. More than 34 million converter box coupons were redeemed for only 12.6 million OTA households. I suspect this number also neglects homes with satellite TV which also make use of OTA reception for HD local channels.

It's pretty clear to me that broadcast serves an important purpose and is much more valuable in ways measured without dollar signs attached. With that said, some would then argue that the NBP is not calling for a complete dismantling of broadcast television (yet), and that it is wasteful. The question then becomes, "does broadcast need all the spectrum it has?" While I would argue that the answer to that is probably no, I also do not think that the NBP number of 120 MHz is a workable number, particularly in where the bandwidth is coming from. There are a number of broadcasters who are airing infomercials or would otherwise probably like to get out of the business and would accept some type of a buyout, which would shrink the number of broadcasters and make a smaller spectrum workable. On the contrary, I know many LPTV owners who are more interested in the art of broadcasting than the money involved, and I feel like they would reject a buyout.

One of the key goals is nothing more than "fix VHF." While I'm sure nobody would be opposed to making VHF work, the sad fact is that it's now too late. The transition is done, people have their antennas and converter boxes, and are not going to be willing to change things out again. If completely not allowed to keep all of the existing channels on both VHF and UHF, I would say to give up on VHF and take away that spectrum instead. In fact, I would argue that the best solution in that case would be to eliminate channels 2-21 rather than 31-51. Channels 2-6 have been largely abandoned by broadcasters, and channels 7-13 are proving themselves poor choices for reception as well. Both of these bands would be good for fixed wireless services into rural and mountainous areas where line of sight becomes a problem and outdoor antennas would be expected. Selected channels on 14-20 are already reserved in several major cities including New York and Los Angeles, and thus would be usable for wireless using narrower bandwidth applications.

As far as licensing multiple stations on a single transmitter is concerned, the bandwidth simply is not there. While some stations have successfully pulled off two HD services on a single channel (the NBP used the word "spectacular" which is not a word I would choose), nothing else then fits on the channel. New encoders would be required for many stations, 1080i would have to go away as a transmission standard due to its higher bandwidth usage, and what of stations that are already making full use of bandwidth? Stations with HD, one or more SD, and/or Mobile DTV? Stations with many subchannels targeting minority audiences? If the FCC had required that all the converter boxes produced for the transition would receive MPEG-4, we could transition everyone to MPEG-4 for video with relatively little discomfort and save a lot of bandwidth, but we're unfortunately three years too late to do that now.

I actually fully agree with the FCC on the subject of channel repacking, but someone has to pay for it, and it should not be the TV stations who literally just got finished rechanneling. If the FCC would like to pay for all that work to be done, more power to them. It would reduce interference and hopefully make reception easier. However, if the FCC also chooses to redefine coverage areas, then this plan could be an awful mistake. Stations are already way too close together in many places, and trying to pack them even closer would be a huge failure.

The NBP makes note of DTS and comments on it, but correctly notes that it does not work well yet and is very expensive. I do not believe the FCC would strongly push this unless some major advances in transmission technology took place and costs came way down, so I will not expend any energy discussing it.

While the NBP touches on a number of other points, I feel there is only one more that would be exceptionally important. Levying spectrum fees on users who offer a free service is fundamentally unfair and serves only to attempt to drive broadcasters out of business. This is the most damning part of the NBP, as it shows exactly what the FCC ultimately wants--an end to broadcast television. Once again, money proves to be more important than the public interest, as the poor who cannot afford subscription television services and the rural viewer who depends on OTA due to lack of availability of subscription services are again left in the cold while the wealthier people in big cities and the corporations serving them reap additional benefits. As broadband will make no difference to a poor person who cannot afford a computer, and will not be available to the rural users; both groups will lose video services as well as local news and emergency information they provide. And everyone will lose out as the super reliable broadcast infrastructure is replaced with much less dependable broadband infrastructure.

It is obvious to me where the current FCC's loyalties lie. The NBP says little about promoting competition between wireline carriers like cable and telephone companies, but lots about auctioning off as much spectrum as possible to the big telecom companies while slowly killing off broadcast TV. Much like the rest of our government, the FCC is run by lawyers rather than by experts and by money and politics rather than good sense. One can only hope that between people in Congress like Representatives Boucher and Dingell and Senator Snowe who understand the value and importance of free OTA television and the push of the broadcast industry to encourage citizens to make their opinions known, that the FCC will back off from this course of action and look instead to other areas to find spectrum and otherwise increase broadband penetration.


1. On Friday, March 19 2010, 11:52 by Mike M

Well said.

I like this idea of removing 2-21 vs 31-51. I never thought that we should have kept OTA over 3 different bands, especially Low VHF (2-6).

As you have noted, 14-21 are largely unavailable already in the biggest markets. If 20 channels are taken from the top, LA will be left with 10 UHF channels available for TV broadcasting, total. That is completely unacceptable and would probably require 2, 4 & 5 to be reactivated, which would be a terrible mistake.

Also, as for having one station running 2 "HD" channels on one 6MHz channel, I can assure you that the quality is not spectacular. KABC 7.1 is passable, but 7.2 (LivWell HD) is simply terrible. Even if they removed the 7.3 weather channel, I would not expect the results to significantly improve. Of course, running 2 HD channels on 6MHz effectively precludes any possibility of running even one Mobile DTV channel.

If the FCC insists on proceeding with the "plan," then Land Mobile on 14-20 should be moved or at least adjacent LM protections must be reconsidered. At present, they have 6MHz guard bands on each side. Currently, just 1 LM allocation on 15-20 effectively removes 3 channels from use.

2. On Friday, March 19 2010, 16:19 by Drew from Dover

I suggest the geniuses who envisioned 5.8.5 take a class in 4G. It's amazing how the private sector usually get it right. ;-)

3. On Saturday, March 20 2010, 06:55 by Stanislav

A little "devil's advocate" here...

Yes, OTA broadcast TV is a much more efficient utilization of bandwidth, as you pointed out. However, the way people use TV has changed dramatically with technology. Except for major live events that many people watch simultaneously and often in groups (Super Bowl, Oscars, presidential elections, etc.), it's becoming more of an "on demand" world in which people want to watch what they want, when they want to. If someone wants to watch the latest episode of "House," for example, they don't want to be forced to plunk themselves down in front of a TV at precisely 8 pm (7 Central) on Monday. They might want to watch it on their TV at 3 am if they have insomnia, or the next morning on the train on their mobile device, or later that day (when they're at their job, allegedly working) on their computer. Consumers are developing viewing habits that cannot be met by the broadcast model.

As for emergencies, as opposed to general entertainment, we suffer under the misguided notion that there must be a visual component to such information to be useful. Something like the 162 mHz NWS radio network is a fine idea in theory, but lacks some usefulness in execution. I'd like to see the concept expanded to include better, more detailed weather info, and to delve into areas beyond just weather. Perhaps a service that would provide live, updated critical information on weather, traffic, important local news headlines, Amber Alerts, etc., in voice and perhaps text, delivered efficiently via broadcast free of charge on simple, inexpensive receivers. In the event of an emergency, such information can and should be disseminated in real time in a manner accessible to all regardless of income.

But for general entertainment, the broadcast model is becomingly increasingly irrelevant. I'll be as sad as any TV Geek to see OTA TV disappear, but I do expect it to do so in my lifetime. (And I'm 52 and not in the best of health.)

4. On Saturday, March 20 2010, 11:56 by Trip Ericson

Stanislav: While you're absolutely right in many areas, I must respectfully disagree in others.

I concur that people's viewing habits have changed, but I don't feel it's justified to kill off OTA TV in order to handle that. Two of your three examples do not make any use of wireless packet technologies. The person at work is using a wired Internet connection, and the person at home on the TV is using either a DVR to record a regular TV signal, or a wired Internet connection. Only the person watching on a train would need it, and even then Mobile DTV is supposed to have some type of storage functionality for such things. (I do not know the details, so I could be misinterpreting how it works.)

I completely disagree that visual information is unnecessary in emergencies. If one is simply listening to directions for safety or for local weather warnings, then absolutely one only needs audio. But I know that when there are thunderstorms in my area, the first thing I do is find the local weather radar, so I can determine whether or not the storm will be passing over me or going around me. The weather radio cannot show you that. You also mention amber alerts, but wouldn't an amber alert be much more useful if people knew what the child looked like?

No doubt that a TV station is likely to be less successful if they air only reruns all day, but I feel that those stations providing new content are making much more efficient use of the spectrum than wireless Internet connections would.

5. On Saturday, March 20 2010, 12:28 by Joe

I am currently satisfied with DSL for Internet. FIOS is not available where I live. I am a cable subscriber.

I am seriously considering getting rid of cable and using the free over-the-air broadcast TV. I have kids and it seems as though all we watch is Sponge Bob Square Pants and iCarly. For what we pay for cable, we can buy a lot of DVDs.

With the proposed plan, I imagine stations may have to drop subchannels like This TV and Qubo so that only the bare essential network channels will be available. I'm hoping one of the local channels will start carying The Cool TV, but if this plan goes into effect, it probably won't happen.

6. On Tuesday, March 23 2010, 09:02 by Warren

Sadly, I believe that OTA will soon be gone, they have maybe 10 years left. I love the switch to digital, the picture quality is 100 percent better in the rural area of NY were I live in, but it is easy to find many homes that went to pay service after the switch, the reason has to do more with the Buffalo NY stations climbing off of VHF to UHF, if your about 50 air miles from the transmitters you want a good UHF antenna, most people didn't have that, and didn't even know why they lost the signal. I disagree with the statement the VHF would be a better wireless spectrum. The problem that VHF offers is a propagation, granted it is great for analog TV, but it also is affected by skip, plus for 2 way wireless transmission you would need a decent transmitter on the user side, not to mention you can under the right conditions with E skip have multiple signals, not to mention normal multi-path problems. Sadly I don't really believe the rural area I live in will get anything from the Broadband plan. On Broadcasting and Cable News web site, their article http://www.broadcastingcable.com/ar...
The Chairman of the FCC says “Julius Genachowski says the government has a crucial but "restrained" role in the rollout of broadband”. In my opinion, if the FCC doesn't take a very active role, you will not see much change in broadband in rural areas, most ISP's are not offering broadband to those areas or limited broadband, because there is no real money to make. But there is a lot of money to make in offering more spectrum in metro areas to wireless companies. Hopefully I am wrong and the new broadband plan will increases service to rural and less served areas, but I don't see it happening unless the FCC forces it in those areas.

7. On Thursday, March 25 2010, 10:23 by Andrew

I dropped cable a year ago and couldn't be happier. My kids still watch plenty of TV the difference is most comes from PBS. It is a shame that we could be faced with losing that much spectrum. I say leave broadcast TV alone. I do agree that Lo VHF should have gone away as the average household really doesn't want a huge roof mounted antenna. Even HI VHF has presented its problems in the digital era. Think of this like Healthcare and you all know what will happen, government messing with the system it hurts some and helps others or not. I really don't want to pay for TV again even if it is only 20 bucks more a month, it is still 20 bucks.

8. On Sunday, March 28 2010, 21:23 by pantrychef

Many years ago, I subscribed to cable from OTA Analog because of the better reception. Ironically I dropped cable in favor of OTA DTV for HD and a better picture. Also saving $50/month wasn't bad either. I have never looked back since. I am also happy that I saved the money I would have paid the cable company since November 2007 and have already bought two LCD TVs with ATSC tuners of course.

While I am a big supporter of free TV, folks where I live somehow don't share the same sentiment. I can't understand why they constantly dismiss OTA DTV as for the poor and the elderly. Sadly, they have already written it off. Coupled with the direction taken by the FCC, it seems painfully clear that OTA will meet its eventual demise well in my lifetime and the public won't care less.

Ever since the 90's when the FCC started selling spectrum and showed they could make big bucks for the feds, this supposed public resource has been turned into a strip mine. Broadcasters used to be a powerful lobby but I think the media shift has weakened their stature, thus exposing their vulnerability. The mine will eventually be strippped and with it, free TV. So sad.

9. On Thursday, April 1 2010, 22:45 by kyl416

Removing OTA will screw my area hard. We have a cable company who basically blackmails us if we want them to serve us. (Either I pay $1000 for every feet they have to lay to service my house, or get our entire block to dump satellite and they'll do it for free, and if I pay the $1000 per 100 feet, there's nothing stopping any of the people who live between my house and the lines on the main street from subscribing in the future using the lines that I had to personally pay for.) Then there's satellite, well out here we have a lot of woods, DirecTV has our locals on 119, which is much to low for our area. OTA is the ONLY way I can get locals, so if the FCC decides to drop OTA, they better make sure to include a clause that enforces franchise agreements between townships and cable systems and force them to be ready to provide service to ANY person who resides within the township they have a franchise agreement. Heck, if they were to do this, it would take care of the broadband issue too.

They really need to take a look at Europe and Japan and see WHY their speeds are better and their penetration is better. It's NOT because of this 4G stuff that they have better penetration, the residential customers are being served by cable, fiber and DSL services, the terrestrial internet service the FCC thinks will be the end all is mainly used by business clients who need access on the go, everyone else suffices with their cell phones which we can already do here. Europe did NOT have to eliminate OTA to do this, heck they built up OTA and made it a viable COMPETITOR to cable and satellite, just take a look at the channels you can get with the UK's freeview system, many other countries have similar services OTA, both completely free and some for a low cost subscription that gives you extra channels on top of the free to air broadcasters. Some are attempting to launch a similar service that recently launched in LA that you cover here, but if the FCC gets their way, you can kiss that good bye.

10. On Friday, April 2 2010, 22:44 by Ryan Jairam

Radio spectrum is like oil. It's going to run out one day, the question is when. With the increasing appetite for high speed data, we're getting there.

I think that the fcc should look at exploring wired alternatives instead of looking to hand over more wireless spectrum to the likes of Verizon and others.

Speaking of Verizon, it's really bad that they've basically stopped rolling out FiOS, selling rural markets and are now basically pushing LTE as their way to fill the gap. Telcos and cablecos also fight hard against municipal fiber deployments.

Really now, fiber is becoming cheaper and easier to deploy. There's no real reason to be gobbling up all of this RF spectrum.

And as far as TV shows becoming ondemand, I have to disagree. Watching TV is still a national pastime. WIth the internet people are discussing shows shortly after they air, even if they DVR the shows. I've had a DVR since 2002 and I almost always watch shows shortly after they record.

11. On Sunday, April 4 2010, 12:43 by pantrychef

@kyl416: Be careful what you wish for. Free TV is not free in Europe and Japan. Everyone who owns a TV must pay a recurring per-set licensing fee, aka TV Tax.

See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tv_tax

After reading this, let us know if this is still what you want.

12. On Thursday, April 8 2010, 17:54 by Snappy Dan

I believe that left alone broadcast would come to dominate television, especially with DVRs. I have a DTVpal DVR, record what I want, even if it comes on at 3 AM, and watch it when I want. As memory gets cheaper and smaller, DVR's for HDTV and mobile DTV will become cheaper and smaller.

When England went through the digital transition, cable subscriptions dropped to 50% of the population. If the same happened here that would force cable operators to turn to broadband for income. Also, cable operators will be able to drop analog service in 2012, which based on my calculations should free up about 600 MHz on their systems (100 channels x 6 MHz), which should translate into real speed.

13. On Thursday, April 8 2010, 20:37 by KyL

I already know about TV licensing fees and they just go to the state/national broadcaster (BBC, NHK, etc), in the USA we have PBS which gets funding via voluntary pledges and gov't funding via taxes we're already paying. Not to mention in countries with license fees EVERYONE has to pay it, not just OTA viewers, so you're comparing apples and oranges.

My point still stands, Wireless is NOT the place to go to expand broadband, the FCC should focus on EXISTING providers. Instead of sacrificing the remaining free outlet for regular and breaking local news (radio doesn't count as outside of the biggest radio markets, many areas do not have a radio station that delivers a true news format outside of random local breaks during nationally syndicated talk shows that only allow one or two stories, if that), they should note that our existing wired providers already have the ability, or soon will have the ability to give 30 mbps+ service, the problem is that many of them do not, or flat out refuse to serve, the most rural of areas, Since landline telephone service is available in nearly all parts of the country, even in rural areas, what they need to do is give Verizon, AT&T and other telco providers financial incentives to build their fiber to home networks out to rural areas, in extreme cases where fiber to home isn't a possibility, give the telco providers financial incentive to upgrade their existing DSL networks to the latest technology that allows for speeds much higher than 3mbps and longer line lengths from the central office to the home. And for cable, who already HAS franchise licenses to serve nearly everyone, give them financial incentives to upgrade their networks with DOCIS 3.0 but make one of the conditions that they either have to build out their networks to a place where they can be ready to serve EVERYONE who resides in the areas where they have a franchise license, and if not that, they have to agree to hook up ANYONE who requests their service without demanding $1000 for every 100 feet of wire.

There will be people who are just fine without broadband in the home and can do just fine without it. The most they should do is just give them a pamphlet on what it is if they don't know, and if they still don't want it, just leave them alone and don't waste any money on them. (i.e. the elderly who are likely going to die or be put in a home or move in with their children by the time the plan takes affect, or those who get along just fine going to their public library for service) Most of them are already on fixed budgets, the LAST thing they should do is force them to subscribe to pay TV just to continue to watch their stories at this time in their life.

14. On Friday, April 9 2010, 08:34 by Warren

This article on Broadcasting a Cable News intrigue's me. The headline ”Verizon CEO Does Not Back FCC Spectrum-Reclamation Proposal” Here is the link.
Now I would question if At&T and other carriers feel the same way, but I can't help asking why is the FCC pushing for reclaiming the spectrum from broadcaster. When listening to the local NPR station in Rochester NY. WXXI their Tech made an interesting point about the broadband plan and spectrum, his point was 'that the FCC was taking a free service and selling to a paid subscription service, in other words after the spectrum is given to wireless you will have to pay to use it, you will not be able to just hang an antenna and get the Internet via a wireless connection for free you have to pay for the service.' Okay I know that everyone reading this blog understands that, but I really question whether the public in general realizes that the broadband plan is really not Broadband Internet for all, but an end or limitation to free over air broadcasting service which has served the public interest for years, for nationwide paid subscription service which you are sure to get in metro areas and could, maybe get in some rural areas and you will have to pay to get it. However if the public doesn't understand that, it is because the same broadcaster that are losing spectrum are not informing the public about what is going on with this plan.

15. On Monday, April 12 2010, 16:30 by Snappy Dan

Another article on the subject was posted 4/12/2010 on the TVNewsCheck web site.


The interview of Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, which was given at a CFR general meeting is available here:


Basic points:

1. Technology will make spectrum use more efficient. (4G, etc.)

2. Efficiency is market driven.

3. The cable industry has bought about 150 MHz over the last 10-15 years that they aren't using.

4. Verizon supporting reallocation of broadcast spectrum would be motivated by selfish self interest, not by need!

Also, the following is a link to the first part of a two part interview of Jim Goodmon, CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, by Broadcast Engineering Magazine. Jim Goodman was responsible for having the first digital HD television station back in 1996.