Feds missing the point on storms and broadcast spectrum

By: Mark Hyman

When April’s deadly tornadoes touched down in the Birmingham area, citizens turned to local broadcasters for lifesaving information.

“How people managed to stay alive during the storm was to watch James Spann,” commented Mike Murphy. Murphy is the general manager of TV station ABC 33/40, where Spann works as the chief meteorologist.

The public’s reliance on television forecasters shoots holes in arguments by the Federal Communications Commission that electromagnetic spectrum used by broadcasters could be put to better use elsewhere.

The FCC is pushing a plan to reassign TV spectrum to cellular telephone subscription services. Of note, Alabamians were not hurriedly activating new cell phones or upgrading service as the tornadoes approached.

Alabama was ground zero in the devastation that swept through the South, killing hundreds. The four major Birmingham TV news operations provided nearly continuous coverage for more than 48 hours. Stations without news operations delivered urgent updates throughout their broadcasts.

Several hours after the tornadoes struck, a reporter for Fox affiliate WBRC-TV displayed a photo of an unidentified baby recovered by rescue workers. Family members came forward to claim the infant shortly thereafter.

More than 200 people were killed and in excess of 1,700 injured in Alabama, but the death toll could have been significantly higher. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., remarked, “I want to congratulate our TV and radio media because you saved many lives.”

Bachus contrasted the death toll of 23 when a much smaller tornado struck the community of Concord in 1995 with the six lives lost in the recent storms when a mile-wide tornado “totally devastated” the same town. Bachus credited television warnings for saving countless lives.

One dramatic broadcast showed a three-quarter-mile-wide tornado ripping through Tuscaloosa. Meteorologist Jason Simpson can be heard identifying landmarks and urging viewers in the tornado’s path to seek immediate shelter.

Gov. Robert Bentley relied heavily on television broadcasts, according to spokewosman Jennifer Ardis. Bentley was in the emergency operations center where officials used television weather radar and live camera feeds to issue storm warnings.

Other technologies didn’t hold up. Torrential rains knocked out satellite TV service long before dishes were blown off rooftops. Countless cell phone towers were damaged and entire regions lost service. Remaining cellular phone coverage was spotty.

Television service was just as valuable after the storms by informing the public about emergency shelters, medical aid and relief operations.

The FCC started its scheme to reassign TV spectrum in 2009 when Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski was the first to claim in a speech before cell phone companies there was a “looming spectrum shortage.”

Subsequent congressional requests that the FCC first conduct a comprehensive spectrum inventory before reallocating spectrum have been ignored. Last year, the House passed the spectrum inventory bill, H.R. 3125, by an overwhelming 394-18 vote, but the measure died in the Senate.

Complicating Genachowski’s shortage claim are acknowledgements by Time-Warner and Dish Network that they are hoarding large chunks of spectrum and have no plans to utilize it.

Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg stated, “Cable companies have bought spectrum over the last 10 or 15 years that’s been lying fallow. They haven’t been using it.”

The FCC suggests reassigning TV spectrum to other industries would possibly generate new revenue for the U.S. Treasury. But if so, at what cost?

Deadly weather is not an anomaly. Emergency events are nearly commonplace whether they are snowstorms in the north, tornadoes in the west or hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Then there are the Amber alerts that lead to the safe recovery of an abducted child.

Society must not place a price tag on saving human life. Just ask the citizens of Alabama.

Mark Hyman hosts “Behind the Headlines” for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns several TV stations serving Alabama but none of the stations cited in this column.

About The Author Mark Hyman:
Mark Hyman hosts "Behind the Headlines," a commentary program for Sinclair Broadcast Group.

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