Tsunami warnings show value of TV airwaves, broadcasters say

The broadcasting industry is seizing the chance to point out the importance of television and radio stations in delivering public safety instructions to Hawaii residents as officials prepare for the first tsunami in 16 years.

The industry's lobbying group says the tsunami warnings reinforce the dangers of proposals in Washington to reclaim their airwaves for mobile broadband services.

Earlier today, President Barack Obama directed residents and tourists to "carefully heed the instructions of state and local officials." At 6 a.m. local time this morning, sirens wailed on the coast to alert people to turn into TV and radio stations for instructions.

TV and radio broadcasters often play an integral role in in relaying evacuation information and weather updates during natural disasters.

The Federal Communications Commission says it needs some of those airwaves to roll out more robust wireless broadband services. Last week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced voluntary auctions in which broadcasters could sell some of their airwaves to free up 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next decade. The auctions will be recommended to Congress in the FCC's National Broadband Plan.

"Spectrum--our airwaves--really is the oxygen of mobile broadband service," Genachowski said.

But the National Association of Broadcasters has fought back against proposals to take spectrum away from stations, arguing that the services provided over their airwaves are more important than ever.

"New apps for iPhones are fine, but in times of crisis, there is no service that comes close to providing timely and potentially lifesaving information better than free and local broadcasters," said Dennis Wharton, NAB executive vice president of media relations.