Can two TV stations share the same airwaves?

There's a bit of a technical issue in this country: The amount of data being gobbled up by smartphones is increasing ad jnfinitum, but the digital plumbing has limits. Only so many tweets and YouTube videos can flow through it.

The FCC has proposed a solution, one that takes its inspiration from a pre-school lesson: Sharing is Caring. The FCC wants TV stations to share the spectrum with one another other, essentially doubling up on a single channel. And the very first experiment of this digital sharing idea is about to begin.

The two stations taking part in this experiment are KLCS, a PBS station, and KJLA, a commercial Spanish language station, both in Los Angeles. "We decided we would rather be informed than not informed," says Alan Popkin, director of TV engineering at KLCS.

In describing this experiment he uses this analogy, "You don't jump out of an airplane and then invent the parachute on the way down."

The experiment will begin off-air, then move to non-peak hours, and eventually, the entire schedule of both stations will be transmitted from one channel. The results will show whether two channels can be packed into one without compromising the quality of the broadcast, and will look at out how TV's will know which channel to display, when faced with two programs on the same part of the spectrum.

If channel sharing works, it could save stations a lot of money because two stations could share the cost of transmission.

"There would be one tower and one transmitter and that would cut down a lot on the cost of operation," says Lonna Thompson, chief operating officer* and executive vice president of the Association of Public Television Stations. In addition, she says, each station would be able to sell its unused bandwidth to the FCC in an Incentive Auction next year.

"The incentives auction is an effort that the FCC is leading to create incentives to use spectrum as efficiently as possible and to free spectrum for mobile broadband services," says Scott Bergmann, vice president of regulatory affairs with CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group.

Companies like T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint are currently arguing over how much of the spectrum each company should get. Bergmann says mobile carriers could use their share to improve services for customers by providing greater capacity, faster speeds, and less congestion.

"The channel sharing pilot is an effort to make the incentive auction successful," Bergmann says.

The auction is scheduled for mid-2015 and is expected to generate $25 billion.


*CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we misidentified Lonna Thompson’s position at the Association of Public Television Stations. She is the chief operating officer. The text has been corrected.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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