Ann Arnold

Bandwidth ownership will soon change hands from some television broadcasters to cellphone and wireless networks in order to sustain the expanding use of mobile devices.

The Federal Communications Commission has been authorized by Congress to auction public airwaves currently used by local television broadcasters to create wireless Internet systems and cellular networks. The auction would take place in one or two years, helping to provide bandwidth for tablets, smartphones and other data-dependent devices whose recent and explosive growth has lead to a data crunch — particularly in major cities.

“More and more people are using cellphones for more and more things,” said radio-television-film professor Joseph Straubhaar. “When you get so many people using smartphones, there’s a lot more burdens on the network and that leads to a lot of dropped calls and slower Internet access.”

Service providers are forced to choose between raising their service fees or accessing more bandwidth to maintain strained networks, and some believe the FCC is efficiently managing the country’s resources in order to keep costs low, Straubhaar said.

“Part of what the FCC has wanted all along is to take bandwidth in television broadcasting and convert it for different services,” Straubhaar said. “Since they’ve used it for so long, broadcasters feel like they had squatters rights to that spectrum. They tend to forget that it was public property and that it was always clear that the FCC was licensing out its usage.”

Ann Arnold, president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, said despite increasing demand for mobile data, the country relies on cable television and it would be hazardous to ignore its importance.

“There are 256 television stations in the state of Texas, and those stations are the lifelines of their communities,” Arnold said. “They provide information about public events, emergencies and Amber Alerts. It’s unclear how many of those stations would go off the air if their bandwidth is sold.”

The FCC currently maintains that bandwidth would only be auctioned if the station agreed to sell their spectrum. Since demand is highest in urban centers, Arnold said that the FCC could aggressively push city broadcasters to sell their airwaves.

“None of the broadcasters still profiting are going to agree to sell their spectrum,” Arnold said. “It’s possible that the less-profitable small spectrums in rural areas would sell, but the FCC isn’t interested in rural networks. They want metropolitan.”

Part of the spectrum opened up by the auction will be allotted to emergency services for networks providing information when others were unable to function. The city of Austin has not yet discussed this possibility, said Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesperson Candice Cooper.

Internet advertisers also see advantages in diverting more spectrum to wireless devices, said Colin Gilligan, account planning director at Austin marketing firm Tocquigny.

“Web searches on mobile phones increased four times from the beginning of 2010 to 2011,” Gilligan said. “With more market, there will be expanding opportunities for mobile and interactive ads and add formats that the new network will be able to handle.”

The providers of these ads, such as Google’s search engine, would benefit from increased coverage, Gilligan said.

“Google might be reaching out so that they benefit from the increased number of searches available with more spectrum,” Gilligan said. “More searches means more profit for Google.”

Printed on Wednesday, February 29, 2012 as: FCC set to auction off public airwaves

Radio stations and TV channels all over the country aired a nationwide Emergency Alert System test Wednesday to unify communication in the case of a national emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, organized a national emergency broadcast alert that would signal an undisclosed national emergency, said FEMA spokeswoman Stephanie Moffett.

“We are doing the test now to see what works, what doesn’t and what improvements need to be made,” Moffett said. “It’s been in the works for months, and we wanted to do this when there was a time to test things out before something happens — if something happens — to merit the use of the system.”

In case of a national emergency, messages will be aired on televisions and radio stations nationally just like the local alert systems people are familiar with now, Moffett said. The only difference is that this was the first nationwide test, and all radio stations and TV channels to participated, she said.

Ann Arnold, president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, said that the alert system is a useful diagnostic test for communicating with people across the nation.

“The EAS test is certainly still a viable mechanism for distributing information,” Arnold said.

A younger generation may be more interested in newer forms of technology, but broadcasting is the most reliable means of communication, Arnold said.

The Amber Alert test, which notifies people about child abduction through local and regional broadcast channels, exemplifies the effectiveness of using this medium, she said.

“Internet goes in and out, and cell phones don’t always have the best reception to receive text messages,” Arnold said. “Part of this is [also] testing the equipment and machinery of the system to make sure everything works in the case that we would need it to.”

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in a statement that FCC and FEMA are currently collecting data about the results.

“This initial test was the first time we have tested the reach and scope of this technology and what additional improvements that should be made to the system as we move forward,” Racusen said. “Only through comprehensively testing, analyzing and improving these technologies can we ensure an effective and reliable national emergency alert and warning system.”

Published on Thursday, November 10, 2011 as: National EAS test assesses effectiveness of alert system