Solving the Digital Puzzle

Solving the Digital Puzzle

Have you ever wondered why there are many areas of the country that still lack decent cell phone reception? Well, the digital world is complicated. Providing updates for consumer convenience and efficiency is not a matter of cost or bureaucratic drive — it mainly hinges on complex logistics. That’s why changes only come once every so often instead of on a more regular basis.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is committed to “closing the digital divide and bringing the benefits of the Internet age to all Americans.” However, over and above these initiatives, there are looming problems that must be addressed so that all Americans can benefit from broadband access.

What’s the Deal?
Broadband spectrum powers the signal for everything from cell phones to radio to television. The technological and communications revolution continues to overwhelm the airwaves. To ensure consumers receive their ever-expanding connections without interruption, things must often be compressed and moved around on the spectrum band.

But doing so isn’t easy: It requires a lot of cooperation and give-and-take on the part of both consumers and businesses.

The 2005–2009 Push for Improvements
The transition to making the spectrum more compatible with the market has been a long time coming.

In 2005, United States House Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton of Texas wanted to end most of analog TV broadcasting as the country moved to digital broadcasting. The reason? It’s more efficient: multiple digital TV channels can be transmitted on the same bandwidth of a single analog TV channel. The majority of the country had already switched to digital, and clogged-up space was needed for more pressing needs, such as cell phones and public safety broadcasting.

But some consumers were still using antenna TVs, and members of Congress at the time understood that they couldn’t take something away without replacing it. That’s why the government gave out coupons to Americans who required digital converter boxes. In addition, they advised cable operators to continue transmitting “must-carry” stations’ analog signals for three years so no consumers would see black screens during the transition. It was a huge success.

The Current Push — and Its Problems
Cell phones and public safety concerns continue to multiply. And, once again, our broadband spectrum is not fully equipped to handle all the new demands.  

To free up more space for cell phone users, the FCC held a  TV Incentive Auction, which concluded last year. Companies with prime spacing agreed to sell their spots to the FCC, and then the FCC sold that space to cell phone providers such as DISH and T-Mobile. The process ended with the government making $7 billion.

But, unless further action is taken, some consumers and businesses could potentially be negatively impacted. Close to 1,000 television stations will have to be relocated on the dial as a result of the spectrum transfer. These relocations will mean periods of weeks or months when the stations must power down. 

Members of Congress did not want their constituents losing television signals as a result of this auction, which is why in 2012, Congress authorized $1.75 billion for a TV relocation fund. These funds are to ensure backup capabilities are available so stations can remain on the air during relocation. However, now that the auction is complete, it is clear that there is not enough money to cover all the relocation costs. So, the FCC has informed Congress that more funds will be needed if all television stations are to be held harmless from the spectrum auction.

To complicate matters, in funding television station relocations, Congress failed to account for the 678 FM radio stations that share towers with relocating television stations. As these television stations are relocating, the radio stations will also have to power down. This obvious oversight will require Congress to make funds available for radio stations as well. If not, millions of listeners across the country could find their favorite radio station go dark in the coming months.

This would be especially hard on those in rural America. Farmers, for instance, use the radio to hear the latest local agricultural news and updates.

Solving the Digital Puzzle
Considering that the government made $7 billion in profits from the incentive auction, it should not be difficult for it to provide just a little more to help keep these companies in business. All Congress needs to do is choose to allocate these funds to the broadcasters in need, rather than on something unrelated.

Fortunately, many lawmakers get it, as evidenced by supportive statements from the FCC’s Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly to efforts by Congress, including bills from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS.) and Reps. Bill Flores (R-TX) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ). Washington should send a clear message: When it comes to broadband access, picking winners and losers across the country is not something the government has any interest in doing.

Fixing the broadband spectrum is like putting together a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle: It’s complicated but entirely feasible. We’re already 90 percent of the way there; Congress just needs to follow through.

Jerry Rogers is the founder of Capitol Allies, an independent, nonpartisan effort that promotes free enterprise. He’s the co-host of The LangerCast on the RELM Network. Twitter: @CapitolAllies.

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