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Policy


Two television stations have agreed to be guinea pigs in an experiment to see whether broadcasters can share airwaves as part of a campaign to convince station owners to give up their airwaves so they can be used for 4G wireless services instead.

Two Los Angeles stations — KLCS, a public broadcasting station, and KJLA, a local affiliate of Spanish-language network LATV — have agreed to test whether their digital channels can share the same airwaves. Engineers will test several scenarios for sharing to see if it’s feasible without disrupting broadcasts. If all goes well, viewers won’t notice any difference.

Broadcasters and the wireless industry will be watching the test closely. Successful results could prompt some TV stations to consider selling their licenses at an upcoming auction next year to make more airwaves available for broadband wireless services.

Federal Communications Commission officials want to allow station owners who agree to auction off their licenses to continue broadcasting by sharing airwaves with other local stations. Last year the agency asked industry officials for feedback on how such sharing arrangements might technically work.

Wireless companies have been trying to find station owners willing to experiment with their signals. The wireless industry wants broadcasters to cough up as many airwave licenses as possible for the upcoming auction, which will allow carriers to beef up their spectrum inventory for 4G wireless and other broadband services.

In the test, broadcast engineers will try to determine how many of each station’s sub-channels can fit into the same digital stream.

A few years ago, broadcast television stations moved to digital signals, which allow them to squeeze several sub-channels into the same space that used to hold one. KLCS, for example, now offers four sub-channels of PBS content in one channel.

“We couldn’t do this three or four years ago,” said Alan Popkin, a broadcast engineer for KLCS. “The technology has changed so radically, we’re not sure what the limit is at this point.”

Meanwhile, FCC commissioners will get a briefing Thursday on the agency’s efforts to prepare for the auction, which was postponed last year. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pushed back the auction date to 2015 over concerns about the complexity of the auction and a desire to ensure the agency’s auction system didn’t suffer a healthcare.gov-like meltdown.

The so-called “incentive auction” is far more complicated than a typical FCC auction because it requires broadcasters to be compensated for giving up their licenses.

Broadcasters can bid to sell their licenses back to the FCC, although there’s no guarantee the FCC will accept their offers. Stations can either take the money and shut down, share a channel with another station or move to a VHF channel which won’t reach as many viewers. Other TV stations may also be shuffled into a different location as the agency squishes everyone together to clear off a large chunk of airwaves for auction.

Federal regulators are hoping to auction off about 20 TV channels of space to carriers for broadband wireless service.

Wireless industry lobbyists are particularly trying to convince broadcasters in urban markets (i.e., large cities including New York, Chicago and San Francisco) to auction off their airwaves so carriers will have more licenses to acquire. Some proponents of the auction worry that station owners in urban markets won’t want to relinquish their airwaves, which would undermine the point of the auction: To get more 4G airwaves in the hands of wireless carriers for consumer use.

Mobile data traffic in the U.S. is expected to grow ninefold by 2017, according to a global mobile data forecast last year by Cisco Systems.

By 2017, mobile data traffic in the U.S. will reach 1.93 exabytes per month, Cisco said, which is the equivalent of more than five million text messages a second.




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