Demand for broadband frequencies to power the latest mobile devices could muscle out local television channels depended on by rural communities, industry officials say.
As millions of customers use their phones to access the Internet, log onto Facebook, text their friends and tweet the world – all while making endless phone calls – they require more and more over-the-air frequencies.
But those same frequencies are also used by over-the-air broadcasters, including the Southwest Colorado Television Translator Association, to provide rural areas with television news, sports, and entertainment via an antennae.
“What they want to do is take away one-third to half of our frequencies and give them to the Internet and phone providers because they think people need that more than over-the-air broadcast,” said district manager Wayne Johnson. “The result will mean less channels, and in some very rural areas, no more channels.”
Using a simple roof antennae, anyone in this region can access up to 60 channels including networks from Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Denver and even Chicago. Local viewers enjoy national sports (including Bronco games) network dramas and comedies along with news, C-Span, and PBS documentaries like NOVA, Frontline, and Nature, plus more.
The service is a good deal, too. Besides purchasing a $70 antennae, and chipping in a few dollars per year per household on the property-tax bill, it is all practically free, paid for by a .77 mill, that generates a budget of $500,000 per year to maintain a network of 11 translators.
“In this tough economy, a lot of people dropped satellite and cable and put up the antennae,” Johnson said. “It’s one less monthly bill.”
The district serves about 4,000 homes, and there is no limit to how many homes can access the signal.
But Colorado’s mountainous and rugged terrain depends on the district’s translators to feed the signals into the nooks and crannies of valley towns like Dolores and rural communities in general, including Dove Creek, Cortez, Mancos, and Hesperus.
As part of the Broadband Spectrum Act, passed as a rider to the 2011 Jobs Bill, a voluntary auction of frequencies, planned for 2014, has been set up by the Federal Communications Commission to try and free up space for broadband demand, Johnson said.
He has been lobbying U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and Washington D.C. regulatory agencies to not sacrifice rural television service in the process.
“It could be a world of hurt if they get what they want. We could lose channels from 60 down to 32. San Juan County, Utah, would be shut down because everything there is from channels 36 to 47,” Johnson said.
Justin Sasso, president and CEO of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, agreed that rural, over-the-air television access via antennae is at risk.
“A lot of people would be become underserved, or no longer served,” he said in phone interview. “What we’re seeing is an administration in D.C. that really wants to push broadband, and is willing to do so at the expense of the infrastructure of one of the most trusted resources that Coloradoans go to all the time — over-the-air broadcast.”
How the upcoming, nationwide frequency auction will go is uncertain. Broadcasters are being asked to give up frequencies voluntarily, Sasso said, which is unlikely for rural associations dedicated to serving their community with television stations and information.
How to best serve the community with a limited amount of over-the-air frequencies is the debate the country is having in the midst of the trend toward mobile communication devices.
“With television broadcasting you can have one person or a million people tuned into the same signal and it doesn’t dilute the signal,” Sasso said. “But get 15,000 people jumping on a broadband network to all text and Twitter and Facebook each other at the same time it will shut it down.”
The CBA’s concern is that broadband industry is trying to “harvest frequencies,” and they have political support of the larger cities and in Washington.
“When we present our concerns we tend to be more of an annoyance because our problems don’t play into their large plan to facilitate broadband in quick fashion,” Sasso said.
One argument broadband promoters make for more frequencies is to accommodate emergency communications and prevent shutdowns during big floods or storms.
But Sasso said there have been no studies confirming that would solve the problem.
“From what our engineers tell us, you could give them all of the spectrum, and it would still not be enough to serve those mass waves of emergency situations,” he said. “It should not be at the expense of people who enjoy over-the-air television. There is room for everyone to play. When an emergency shuts down broadband, people go to their TV for information and news.”
If broadband promoters end up dominating the market it would take a couple of years to manifest itself in the loss of local television, Johnson said.
“We’re always fighting these battles,” he said. “We lost channels 52-59 a while back, and prior to that it was 60-83 to the cell industry.”
Southeast, Utah is especially vulnerable. Loss of too many television frequencies to broadband could shut down the translator on Abajo Peak, which serves Aneth, Mexican Hat, and Bluff, as well as Southwest Colorado.
“They keep saying we’re going to be OK, but they don’t realize that without frequencies we lose translators that are depended on to shoot the signals into rural and mountainous areas,” Johnson said.