WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Broadcasters are gearing up to battle over a possible move by U.S. regulators that in several years might force them to relinquish some airwaves for broadband use.
The Federal Communications Commission, citing a gap between the availability and the need for more spectrum for burgeoning wireless products, is mulling options to free up broadband.
Broadcasters, meanwhile, are preparing to roll out mobile digital television programs by local stations that can be viewed on laptops and handheld devices among other projects.
“We don’t know all the specifics of the FCC proposal, but at this point, it’s not a very appealing proposition to most broadcasters” Dennis Wharton. spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said on Thursday.
Dominated by AT&T Inc (T.N) and Verizon Wireless, the wireless industry is experiencing data capacity issues, mostly due to Apple Inc’s (AAPL.O) popular iPhone and other smartphones. AT&T is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in the United States.
Other companies such as T-Mobile, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG (DTEGn.DE), are seeking more spectrum to better compete with AT&T and Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc (VZ.N) and Vodafone Group Plc (VOD.L).
The industry, which already acquired more than $19 billion in spectrum last year, wants more to meet consumer demand with the explosion of smartphone sales.
“We are just entering the age of mobile data,” said Blair Levin, the FCC’s top broadband coordinator, who added that regulators are exploring all options as they mine for spectrum. “We are looking at everything and talking to everybody.”
According to an analysis by consultants at The Brattle Group, the market value of the spectrum held by broadcasters is an estimated $62 billion. A combination of ways can be proposed to free up some of that spectrum for wireless companies, including paying about $9 billion to migrate all households that rely on over-the-air broadcasts to subscription services.
But it is not known when and how the FCC would formally make the move to force broadcasters to auction a portion of their airwaves. The agency has released few details.
“We believe there is a material likelihood that at least some broadcast spectrum will ultimately be repurposed, though this will be a long process,” Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast said.
Regulators are also looking into freeing up spectrum used by other government agencies, including the Department of Defense, but that could prove difficult if military officials cite national security needs. (Reporting by John Poirier, editing by Leslie Gevirtz)