Battle for airwaves explodes at Vegas show

LAS VEGAS--New media are attacking broadcasters here at the Consumer Electronics Show, trying to persuade Washington to strip valuable airwaves from radio and TV stations.

But broadcasters are fighting back.

The Las Vegas show is all about showing off bigger, faster and richer media that need a big slice of spectrum to reach consumers wirelessly.

The iPhone illustrates the battle. Exploding web applications for the iPhone
have increased AT&T's data usage by 3,000 percent. And with that increase comes network congestion.

"No matter what we do, we're going to need more spectrum," said Glenn Lurie, AT&T's president of emerging devices.

To free up more airwaves for wireless use, the FCC is considering taking some broadcast spectrum and giving it over to wireless use. Broadcasters hate the idea. Their big push in Vegas is mobile TV for cellphones, which use some of the very airwaves eyed by the FCC. They’re doing their best to send the message that mobile TV is complementary to wireless services and should not be taken away.

Both sides are playing to the FCC, the Obama administration and member of Congress, many of whom are in Las Vegas. The battle will continue on K Street all year, with millions of dollars spent on lobbying.

Michael Calabrese, who directs the Wireless Future Program at the New America Foundation, dismissed broadcasters as inefficient users of spectrum.

"Less than 20 percent of what broadcasters have is actually in use," he said on a panel yesterday. "But it's already been spoken for, which is going to make it incredibly difficult to clear."

He also added that only 10 percent of U.S. households still rely on over-the-air television, suggesting that it isn't the best use of resources.

Broadcast industry lobbyists bristled Thursday at the suggestion that they are not using their airwaves efficiently. Wireless carriers have said they need 800 megahertz to meet the growing demand for wireless broadband services. Broadcasters hold 294 megahertz.

"Broadcasters are providing video to cars, to mobile phones," said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a trade group. "In terms of mobile, we are part of the broadband infrastructure."

Again, Donovan bristled, saying over-the-air local broadcasters serve a need for many communities that will not be replicated on cable.

"What I find intriguing about this is that we're making projections about spectrum use when the FCC hasn't actually conducted usage studies from all users," Donovan said. "How efficient are wireless carriers?"

This story was first posted at 2:55 a.m. and updated at 12 p.m.