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Channel Sharing: A New Opportunity for Broadcasters

by: Tom Wheeler, Chairman

February 11, 2014

I’ve seen the future, and it’s using 50% less bandwidth to produce a picture with increased quality of up to 300%.

I just completed a tour of KLCS, a public broadcaster in Los Angeles. As Chairman of the FCC, visiting a television station isn’t necessarily that noteworthy. But today’s visit was different, because KLCS is about to make history.

KLCS has entered into an agreement with KJLA, a Spanish-language station in L.A., to become the first broadcasters in America to pilot the concept of sharing channels of spectrum, which are the airwaves that transmit mobile images and information to TVs, radios and other wireless devices.

Seeing is believing! On my visit I saw KLCS putting out 1 HD stream and 7 standard-definition streams of programming on its current allotted channel of spectrum, what they call multi-casting. What’s really exciting is that as part of the pilot program with KJLA, KLCS will test broadcasting two full HD streams of programming over the same channel. If the pilot works as engineers expect it will, this could be a game changer for the concept of channel sharing.

So why does this matter?

If you live in the United States and you are reading this, you realize that America has gone mobile. Most Americans would have a hard time imagining life without their smartphones, and tens of millions are similarly in love with their tablets.

The problem is that spectrum, the lifeblood of all wireless technologies, is finite. That wasn’t a problem before the mobile web, when most consumers were mostly watching videos or surfing the web at home. If we don’t free up more airwaves for mobile broadband, demand for spectrum will eventually exceed the supply. If you’ve ever been frustrated by websites that loaded slowly or videos that wouldn’t download to your phone, you have a sense what that world could look like.

That’s why the FCC pioneered the concept of incentive auctions. Authorized by Congress in 2012, these two-sided auctions use market forces to repurpose high-quality broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband and other uses.

For the incentive auctions to be successful there must be a willing buyer and a willing seller – in this case, those presently holding broadcast licenses.

The auction is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those broadcasters who want to capture the value of their spectrum

Discussion of the auction has seemed to focus on those broadcasters who may find it attractive to simply sell their spectrum and exit the business.

But there are other options that are presented by the auction as well. One of these is sharing a channel with other broadcasters. Channel sharing can allow broadcasters to bolster their balance sheets, reduce capital expenses, and continue their traditional business.

If KLCS and KLJA’s pilot is successful, and from what I have seen today, I am very optimistic it will be,it will provide a real-world demonstration about the technical and legal arrangements necessary for successful channel sharing. Hopefully other broadcasters will pay attention and consider the valuable opportunities channel sharing and the incentive auction present.

The potential to broadcast two HD streams only makes channel sharing a much more attractive option.

I’m proud to say that the FCC granted approvals for this pilot within a week of its submission. The speed of our decision demonstrates the importance of this pilot and the Commission’s commitment to work with broadcasters to ensure a successful incentive auction.

If we get this right – and we must – it will be a huge win for broadcasters, mobile consumers, and the U.S. economy.

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