TV vs. Smartphones in battle for airwaves

Paul Karpowicz runs 12 television stations for Meredith Corp. He has a quick answer about whether he’d offer the company’s airwaves in a U.S. auction to free up frequencies for data-gobbling smartphones and tablet computers.

“No. The answer would be, ‘No,” Karpowicz, president of the local media group of Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith, said.“I haven’t talked to anyone who is personally excited about jumping into an auction.”

President Obama’s administration has set a 10-year schedule to provide more broadband capability to mobile Internet providers such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T, to ward off what Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski has called“a looming spectrum crisis.”

Its strategies, though, depend on TV-station owners selling some or all of their airwaves, and the Pentagon and other federal agencies moving frequencies for functions such as video links for remote control of bomb-disposal robots.

“It takes a long, long time to do this,” John Hane, a Washington-based communications lawyer with Pillsbury law, said.“You can anticipate there are going to be roadblocks and they’re going to be serious roadblocks.”

Blair Levin, who as an FCC official helped devise the U.S. plan, said in a March 6 speech,“We are moving backward, not forward.”

Failure to bring more spectrum to the market will yield“unhappy consumers who are paying more for less service,” Tom Tauke, executive vice president for Verizon parent Verizon Communications, said at a March 20 conference in Washington.

U.S. mobile providers led by Verizon Wireless and No. 2 AT&T are pushing for more airwaves as wireless data use has more than doubled for four years running. Use is projected to increase 18- fold by 2016, according to network-gear maker Cisco Systems Inc. More than two-thirds of handset buyers are choosing smartphones, according to market researcher Nielsen Holdings NV.

Obama in 2010 adopted the policy of freeing 500 megahertz of airwaves. The U.S. can’t fall behind as the world moves to mobile Web service, or broadband, Obama said in a memorandum.

At the FCC,“We look at freeing 500 megahertz as a goal and a process,” Neil Grace, an agency spokesman, said.“The commission has taken a number of steps to find innovative ways to unleash spectrum,” including loosening restrictions on using some airwaves and letting wireless devices operate in spaces between TV channels, Grace said.

The largest swath of spectrum identified by the FCC as a candidate for reassignment is now used by broadcasters. TV station owners could sell all or part of their airwaves in U.S.- run auctions and won’t be required to take part.

Bidders could include Dallas-based AT&T, Verizon Wireless based in Basking Ridge, N.J., third-largest U.S. wireless carrier Sprint Nextel and No. 4 T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom. Genachowski on March 21 appointed a task force to devise rules for the auction, for which no date has been set.

The process“will take years to play out,” Commissioner Robert McDowell, the sole Republican on the FCC, said. The agency has two Democrats including Genachowski, and is short two members as nominees await Senate confirmation.

“We don’t know how many broadcasters will be interested in relinquishing their spectrum,” McDowell said.“We won’t know until we ask.”

Levin, the former FCC official who’s now a fellow at the Washington-based policy group Aspen Institute, said auctions of TV stations may reap 60 to 80 megahertz of airwaves, compared with 120 anticipated in the National Broadband Plan that he helped write at the FCC under Democratic officials.

Many broadcasters are intrigued by the possibility of sending digital streams to mobile devices and would be reluctant to part with their airwaves, said Karpowicz, chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters. The Washington-based trade group lists members including CBS, Comcast’s NBC, Walt Disney’s ABC and News Corp.’s Fox.

“Why would I give up spectrum and forgo this potential opportunity for a one-time payoff when you don’t know what that payoff will be?” Karpowicz said.

Hane, the attorney, said some broadcasters may be willing to sell, particularly those that own TV stations in smaller cities that aren’t national network affiliates and don’t attract large audiences.

“These stations are scraping by,” Hane said. “There are just not a lot of things to do if you’re not the lead dog.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department arm that advises the White House and FCC, on March 27 said U.S. agencies could share airwaves with commercial wireless companies in a 95-megahertz swath.

Larry Strickling, the NTIA administrator, on a conference call said sharing was part of a “new path forward” needed in part because there’s not much open spectrum to receive relocated U.S. users. Moving U.S. agencies aside could cost $18 billion and take more than 10 years, according to an NTIA report. Sharing can allow a quicker, cheaper transition, Strickling said.

The NTIA said in a report that a classified document discusses costs for relocating “certain national security systems.” It didn’t provide details.

The Defense Department doesn’t want to move functions including satellite tracking and electronic-warfare testing and training, according to the NTIA’s report.

The report is “very encouraging,” Verizon Communications’s Tauke said in an e-mailed statement. He said the company wants to work with agencies “to make the maximum amount of spectrum available for mobile use as soon as possible.”

The NTIA’s decision shows the Obama administration is serious about spectrum reassignments, Jeffrey Silva, a Washington-based analyst for Medley Global Advisors, said.

“Actually wrestling frequencies away from the Pentagon and other government agencies remains an uphill battle and a beneficial outcome for wireless carriers is far from guaranteed,” Silva said.

Air Force Lt. Col. April Cunningham, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said the Pentagon will consider “innovative spectrum sharing arrangements.”

“The Defense Department remains committed to work cooperatively on a balanced approach that protects mission- critical military operations while making spectrum available for broadband use,” Cunningham said in an e-mail.