POLICY BRIEF: PUBLIC TELEVISION AND SPECTRUM USE
During the latter part of 2009, commercial wireless providers began communicating to Congress and the FCC the urgent need for additional spectrum in order to roll-out 4G wireless networks to serve the broadband needs of wireless consumers nationwide, including in unserved and underserved areas. Policymakers are now taking a hard look at current spectrum use and allocation, including the introduction of several pieces of legislation that address spectrum policy and inventories.
The FCC is also considering a number of proposals for both commercial and noncommercial broadcasters. The FCC is looking at a plan that would be strictly voluntary, and involve reallocation and/or repacking of some spectrum. The FCC plan focuses primarily on urban and large metropolitan areas where the need for spectrum will be the greatest, although the spectrum repacking likely will be nationwide.
The FCC is hoping Congress will give it authority to conduct “incentive” auctions for the broadcast spectrum, in which some proceeds will go to the broadcasters and the remainder toward the budget deficit. The Commission also envisions using some of the funding for a public media fund for digital content creation and innovation.
While public television is committed to working with Congress to examine policies that could provide supplementary funding for public broadcasting, we are mindful that only Congress has the authority to establish an incentive auction. As such, any policies that are tied the relinquishing of spectrum need to be debated in the halls of Congress. Public television recognizes that this will be a long-term joint effort between the FCC and Congress, and we look forward to working with both entities on realistic options as they consider various spectrum proposals. Ultimately, any such policies must protect the investment that local stations and their communities have made in over-the-air broadcasting and the digital future.
PUBLIC TELEVISION’S EFFICIENT USE OF SPECTRUM IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST
With the support of Congress and the American public, public television stations nationwide invested more than $1 billion to build out the next generation of digital broadcasting equipment, of which Congress has provided approximately one-third over the past eight years. In addition to infrastructure, stations and the producing community have invested considerable amounts in developing innovative, new digital content to serve niche audiences and fill the increased capacity.
As a result, public television has been at the forefront of utilizing new digital broadcast technology that allows stations to replace their single, analog broadcast channel with multiple digital broadcast streams that nourish public broadcasting’s core missions of education, diversity and localism. In doing so, public television stations have been pushing the technological envelope that digital technology affords for a wide variety of productive uses that accentuate the mission of public broadcasting—including local public affairs programming, dedicated educational channels, homeland security applications, on-demand lesson plans and workforce training. The innovative and effective use of spectrum by public broadcasters is evident not just in their primary over-the-air services, but also in their commitments to mobile video and datacasting, which expand educational and homeland security opportunities.
Below are examples of the ways public television continues to maximize its spectrum usage:
Universal Free Service
Since their inception, public broadcasters have been committed to providing universal free over-the-air service to every household in America. This service is particularly important to those living in rural communities where over-the-air service may be the only option, and to elderly and minority populations.
Public television is also utilizing this additional capacity to ensure that underserved populations have a local voice in the media market. For example, in Southern California, KVCR has recently announced a partnership with the San Miguel Band of Mission Indians to launch the nation’s first 24 hour Native American channel focused on telling the stories of the indigenous North American peoples.
With the consolidation of media and the financial strains facing newspapers in many local communities, public broadcasters remain the last locally-owned and operated media outlets. Public television takes this role seriously by continuing to provide the highest level of local news, public affairs and educational programming that communities have come to trust. This is also critical to ensuring that communities have access to local emergency alerts and warnings.
Many stations, such as Kentucky Educational Television’s The Kentucky Channel which focuses on Kentucky’s people, places and cultures, are utilizing the digital technology to launch channels purely dedicated to local issues. Several stations have created channels dedicated to live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the state legislatures, making sure that citizens have the most in-depth knowledge of the issues being covered by state elected officials.
Public Safety and Homeland Security
Public television has been at the forefront of utilizing digital technology to develop innovative homeland security applications, including a partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to ensure that national alerts and warnings are available in real-time to any device capable of receiving a digital signal.
Public television stations nationwide are also partnering with local emergency responders to maximize their digital capacity to address local needs. The technology enables stations to transmit emergency messages to a variety of handheld devices.
For example, in Las Vegas, Vegas PBS is partnered with local emergency responders and other local partners to transmit various tailored emergency messages and response plans directly to responders on the scene. Their partnership with local schools and local law enforcement is helping to make sure that they can provide real-time school blueprints to police in their vehicles to help facilitate the emergency response at local schools. They have a similar partnership with the local casinos. All of their work in this field is helping local private businesses and government agencies by providing an essential interoperable communication and highly tailored response to local emergencies.
At its core, public television has always been committed to providing the highest level of educational resources. Whether through children’s educational programming, abundant online services to teachers and parents, or datacasting educational information directly into homes and schools, public television stations across the country have always been educational leaders in their communities and they are maximizing new digital technologies to serve their local communities in vastly expanded ways.
For example, many stations throughout the country have utilized the digital transition to launch all new 24 hour educational channels. Stations are also utilizing their spectrum to datacast lesson plans and educational programming directly into schools which helps work around broadband capacity constraints.
As part of their educational mission, stations have long provided workforce skills training and development, which is now more important than ever. These activities include: GED preparation and workforce skills lessons on-air, online and on-the-ground.
Public television stations have joined their commercial counterparts in making significant investments in the development of a mobile TV service using a portion of their spectrum allocation. Mobile TV allows users to receive live, over-the-air television signals on handheld devices, a service that has proven invaluable in terms of the users’ ability to receive live news and information, as well as critical weather and other public safety information in real time. This technology also has many educational benefits that public broadcasting stations are exploring and looking to maximize.
As any mandatory spectrum reallocation could unduly interfere with these important initiatives, spectrum reallocation proposals affecting public television will require the most careful scrutiny and examination of all the ramifications.