FCC Wireless Plan Faces Broadcaster Resistance

The FCC's goal is to expand broadband availability to reach the estimated 100 million homes that don't currently have broadband subscriptions, as well as the 14 million homes to which broadband isn't available at all. By 2020, the FCC wants 100 million U.S. households to have broadband connections of 100 megabits per second, and for the national broadband penetration rate to be 90 percent.

The FCC is also trying to coax television broadcasters to part with some of their unused spectrum to help alleviate congestion on wireless broadband networks and avert what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has called "a looming spectrum crisis." The FCC wants to liberate up to 500 MHz of spectrum over the next decade, 120 MHz of which would come from unused spectrum owned by television broadcasters.

The FCC wants to auction off the broadcasters' spectrum to wireless carriers like AT&T that are currently staggering under the weight of smartphone subscribers' appetite for bandwidth. The FCC is offering broadcasters a cut of the auction proceeds, but like any large government or corporate entity that finds itself in possession of a hot commodity, broadcasters are digging in their heels.

Broadcasters are claiming that just because they're not using the 120 MHz of spectrum earmarked by the FCC doesn't mean they won't in the future. Translation: We have something you want, and we intend to get as much as we can for it.

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"We were pleased by initial indications from FCC members that any spectrum reallocation would be voluntary, and were therefore prepared to move forward in a constructive fashion on that basis," Dennis Wharton, NAB's executive vice president, told IDG Monday.

"However, we are concerned by reports today that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised. Moreover, as the nation's only communications service that is free, local and ubiquitous, we would oppose any attempt to impose onerous new spectrum fees on broadcasters."

The FCC isn't offering an estimate for what the ambitious ten-year plan will cost, but the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, of which the plan is a part, includes $7.2 billion earmarked specifically for broadband upgrades aimed at improving the effectiveness of government services, health care, education, public safety, energy conservation, economic development, and other national priorities.

The National Broadband Plan offers a classic contrast between national interests and those of private industry, and the most likely scenario going forward will be a long, vicious struggle over spectrum, that most valued of telecommunications commodities.

But for a country that's still mired in an economic funk, the longer the National Broadband Plan is delayed, the more the country's ability to compete will be affected.

"It's an action plan, and action is necessary to meet the challenges of global competitiveness, and harness the power of broadband to help address so many vital national issues," Genachowski said in a statement.