This past September, the FCC initiated a rulemaking to develop policies and rules that would reclaim relinquished spectrum from television broadcast companies, and repackage and auction that spectrum to existing or new wireless companies. The FCC's central goals are
"…to repurpose the maximum amount of UHF band spectrum for flexible licensed and unlicensed use in order to unleash investment and innovation, benefit consumers, drive economic growth and enhance our global competitiveness, while at the same time preserving a healthy, diverse broadcast service."
If you think preserving the health of broadcasting is an afterthought, you are right. The concern is BROADBAND, BROADBAND, BROADBAND. And, even though the process in terms of broadcasters relinquishing their spectrum is supposed to be entirely voluntary, the pressure is definitely on.
As National Association of Broadcaster President Gordon Smith observed in a recent interview with C-SPAN (and reported in POLITICO Pro), "relatively few stations in urban areas, where the wireless industry's need for spectrum is greatest, will voluntarily surrender their licenses." Smith did not think Congress would force broadcasters to give up spectrum if an insufficient number volunteered to do so, but who really knows what the future may demand.
For now, the comment cycle in the rulemaking ends in mid-March and, given its complexity, you should not expect to see a decision before year-end 2013. Among the major players will be a new group organized for this very purpose - The Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition. Its Executive Director, Preston Padden, announced last week that 25 television stations in "major markets" were interested in making some or all of their spectrum available in the planned auction; but how "major" these markets are remains to be seen and, it should be noted, some or most of these offers may entail channel sharing rather than channel relinquishment. And, to put all of this in perspective: that's 25 stations out of a nationwide total of more than 1,750 (1.4%).
More to come, for sure.