CAPITAL CURRENTS: The FCC’s white spaces decision

Wed, 12/31/2008 - 7:10pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

It’ll be a long time before unlicensed TVBDs are deployed.

There is another digital video transition underway affecting TV stations, but this one is more complicated than the transition from analog to digital broadcasting. During 2008 and 2009, broadcasters are exchanging their analog 2 GHz electronic newsgathering microwave transmitters for digital ones and converting to a new channel plan. But this Jeffrey Krausstransition is way behind schedule. Sprint Nextel is footing the bill because it gets some of the broadcasters’ ENG frequencies. New satellite operators ICO and TerraStar also get some of the broadcasters’ spectrum, but they have refused to pay their share.

This is the outcome of years of radio interference. The interference victims were public safety agencies that were using 800 MHz mobile radio frequencies, which were interleaved with mobile frequencies used by Fleet Call. Fleet Call’s initial customer base was trucking companies and other businesses that operated fleets of vehicles. Initial network design was the same as for public safety agencies: a few high-power transmitter towers in any metropolitan area.

But in 1990, Fleet Call requested FCC permission to change its design to mimic mobile networks, with many lower-power transmitters blanketing an area. Then Fleet Call changed its name to Nextel and began offering mobile service to the public.

Interference occurred whenever a police car operating on an adjacent frequency came close to one of the many Nextel transmitters. The result was large “dead spots” surrounding each Nextel transmitter.

For many years, TV broadcasters used the 1990-2110 MHz band for portable point-to-point video transmissions to feed live news events back to the studio. (Cable operators that produce their own news programming are also eligible to use this band.) But eventually the mobile radio technology evolved to the point where those frequencies could be used for mobile voice and data communications.

In 2000, the FCC decided to cut the broadcasters’ ENG allocation by 35 MHz (from 1990-2110 MHz to 2025-2110 MHz) and give that to new Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) carriers. The MSS carriers would be responsible for retuning the broadcasters’ existing microwave transmitters to a new channel plan, or replacing the units. But at that time, there was little financial support for the proposed new satellite systems.

So in 2004, after years of negotiations and FCC proceedings, the FCC decided to solve the interference problem by moving Nextel out of 800 MHz into some of that 2 GHz spectrum.

Nextel was given a nationwide allotment of 1910-1915 MHz paired with 1990-1995 MHz. The FCC valued this at around $5 billion. Nextel was credited with the relinquished spectrum at 800 MHz, valued at $1.6 billion. Nextel was obligated to pay for relocating the broadcasters out of 1990-2025 MHz, as well as relocating some public safety networks in the 800 MHz bands and moving other users out of other bands around 2 GHz. Nextel was later acquired by Sprint, which is now responsible for those obligations.

Broadcasters had divided the 1990-2110 MHz band into seven channels of 17 MHz each and used analog FM transmitters. The narrowed allocation supports seven channels of only 12 MHz each. That narrowed bandwidth reduces an FM video transmitter’s ability to overcome noise and signal loss. But video transmission technology was evolving at the same time as land mobile, so the use of OFDM modulation coupled with digital video compression seems to work fine in a 12 MHz channel. And it’s consistent with the transition to digital broadcasting. So Nextel was obligated to replace several thousand analog ENG transmitters with new digital gear.

The FCC gave Nextel 30 months to replace the broadcasters’ ENG gear. That period expired Sept. 7, 2007. They didn’t make it. They didn’t even come close. The FCC extended the deadline. In December 2007, Sprint Nextel asked for an additional two years. The current schedule calls for completion in August 2009. We’ll see.

This transition is finally underway. As of October 2008, Sprint Nextel had entered into relocation agreements with 97 percent of U.S. broadcasters, but only 40 percent of new equipment orders had been shipped by microwave manufacturers. All broadcasters in a market must be cut over at the same time, or else the old radios and the new radios will interfere with one another. Each market is a major effort. In the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore market, Nextel replaced transmitters in 64 trucks, six helicopters and more than 100 portable transmitters. But there are still many major metropolitan areas that will not complete the transition until July or August of 2009, including New York City.

Meanwhile, ICO and TerraStar want to start operating in January 2009, even in markets where broadcasters have not yet relocated. That will cause interference to broadcast ENG operations. But to make matters worse, they are taking a free ride at Nextel’s expense. Nextel is paying for relocating the broadcasters out of spectrum that ICO and TerraStar will use. And so far, the satellite operators have paid nothing.


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