The US Federal Communications Commission says it wants to reclaim "over" 150 MHz of spectrum from television broadcasters as part of its plan to beef the country's wireless broadband.
The FCC is scheduled to deliver its national broadband plan to Congress and the president in mid-February, and the man in charge of the plan - executive director of broadband initiative Blair Levin - turned up in Silicon Valley this morning to discuss the agency's thinking.
Levin has made no secret of the fact that he and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski intend to buy back a healthy slice of TV spectrum and turn it into broadband. But the details are still to be sorted.
This morning, however, Levin and fellow FCCer Carlos Kirjner - senior advisor to the chairman - were quite clear that they want to reclaim at least 150MHz of TV airwaves. And perhaps more.
"We need at least several hundred more megahertz in the ecosystem within the next - roughly speaking - decade. At least," Levin said, during a gathering of the Silicon Valley's tech-obsessed Churchill Club. "That story in the New York Times that says AT&T's network is collapsing? If we don't start moving now, that will be not just one company. That will be the whole broadband ecosystem."
At the moment, there's only no more than 50 extra MHz in the pipeline and, Levin says, new spectrum takes six to 13 years to go live.
"In five years, we could see a collapse of that system, with prices going up and quality going down - if we don't act now."
Some have argued that new wireless infrastructure technologies - such a femtocells - could allow Levin's "ecosystem" to thrive without his hundreds of extra megahertz of spectrum. But he and Kirjner say that relying on new tech is too much of a risk.
Levin points out that before the FCC's 1994 airwaves auction, it was argued that it wasn't necessary because shared bandwidth technology was "just around the corner."
"It's the same situation now. People are trying to say there's no spectrum crisis. Technology will solve it," he said. "That would be great. We're not counting on it."
And TV spectrum is the obvious place to grab more bandwidth. As Kirjner explained, some of that spectrum was allocated more than 60 years ago.
To make the FCC's point, Levin cited a recent study by a financial research analyst named Craig Moffett. "Moffett asks the question: 'Ten years from now, do you want to be known as the country that has the best broadcast TV in the world or the best broadband in the world?'
"I can assure that the view in Washington is broadband."
But according to Levin, the FCC does not intend to remove broadcast TV entirely - or even reduce the quality of broadband TV. "I think it is possible to have spectrum for both [the best TV and the best broadband in the world]," he said. "But I don't think that having the best broadcast television requires all the spectrum they're currently using.
"One of the things we're trying to do is figure out how do you create a market-clearing mechanism that actually allows markets to make those determinations over time."
Basically, the agency intends to buy back certain spectrum from the TV broadcasters and then auction it off for licensed broadband use. "We believe that we can keep broadcast over the air TV working as it works today," Kirjner said. "No one is talking about taking all the spectrum away. We think we can reallocate smartly. We can keep all the primary channels on the air and still free up over 150MHz of spectrum." ®