CTIA's grab at BAS frequencies raises public-safety questions

editor's corner

The National Association of Broadcasters is playing the public-safety card in its response to a letter sent to the FCC by wireless trade group CTIA, which wants the commission to consider reclaiming some broadcast auxiliary services (BAS) spectrum for commercial mobile broadband use. The NAB's reaction brings up some interesting issues regarding the role of television news in public safety.

CTIA has identified the upper edge of the Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) spectrum located at 2095-2110 MHz as offering up the most likely frequencies that could be reallocated in order to provide 15 MHz of contiguous spectrum. CTIA would like to see those frequencies paired with the 1695-1710 MHz spectrum that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has proposed to reallocate from federal to commercial use. CTIA reminded the FCC that it has only until February 2015 to find, allocate and license an additional 15 MHz of spectrum for mobile broadband as required by the 2012 Spectrum Act.

However, the NAB contends CTIA's proposal poses a threat to public safety. "Every day, local TV stations use broadcast auxiliary spectrum (BAS) to provide breaking coverage of devastating storms, tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires. If Superstorm Sandy demonstrated anything, it is that broadcast television serves as a lifeline in times of emergency, where cell phone/wireless architecture has failed," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton told Broadcasting & Cable.

He recalled that just a few years ago broadcasters returned 108 MHz and one-third of their BAS spectrum for wireless broadband purposes.

This new debate between NAB and CTIA is particularly interesting because it cropped up on March 13, the eve of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology's hearing regarding FirstNet, the entity charged with building the LTE-based National Public Safety Broadband Network for first responders.

A lot of air inside the Beltway will be heated up during that meeting (I'm writing this column the night before), but I suspect little about FirstNet's future will actually be determined because little ever is at these get-togethers. Among the many things likely left undecided will be the actual definition of a first responder vs. a secondary responder.

That latter category is generally acknowledged to include utilities and transportation. However, some have argued that TV newsgathering entities should also be considered secondary responders, which might also require access to the NPSBN in the event of an emergency.

This raises a critical question regarding the role that broadcast news has in protecting the general public. During a disaster, are people more likely to turn to the Internet via smartphones, tablets and laptops or to their radios and TV sets? Do the newsgathering and news dissemination services provided by broadcasters perhaps result in as many lives saved as services provided by actual first responders?

Pushing aside the gut-busting TV anchor and reporter FAIL videos that pop up on Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube, there really is no denying the role broadcast news can play in public safety and security. Further, a lot of TV news reports also land directly on the Internet these days, so it's not exactly a broadcast vs. broadband situation.

As an outsider looking in, I can only hope that CTIA, NAB and FirstNet are considering all of these issues. I'm haven't chosen sides in these particular debates. But given that the FCC's rush to free up spectrum has already resulted in a number of what some could consider Machiavellian twists, I would hate to see any unintended consequences negatively impact the public's safety.--Tammy

P.S. What do you think? Is BAS spectrum a good candidate for reallocation? Vote in the poll on our home page.