By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. wireless industry lobby is proposing a pilot project to test how two television stations could share radio frequencies, hoping the practice catches on and broadcasters free up more of the valuable airwaves to be sold in an upcoming spectrum auction.
The wireless association, CTIA, said on Tuesday it has found two stations in Los Angeles - KJLA and KLCS - interested in testing how they could send their video through the same radio frequency channel.
Known as channel sharing, the practice has been supported by the Federal Communications Commission as a way to clear up more airwaves, or spectrum, for the so-called incentive auction currently scheduled for 2015.
In the auction, TV stations would voluntarily give up control of low-frequency airwaves so that they can be sold to wireless providers such as AT&T Inc or T-Mobile US. The wireless companies are keen to boost the strength and reach of their networks as consumers increasingly rely on wireless phones for data-heavy uses like streaming video.
The auction proceeds would reimburse the broadcasters and also help fund a new U.S. public safety network.
The auction is widely regarded as the most complex undertaking by the FCC to date, balancing numerous economic, engineering and political considerations, including a vocal push from smaller carriers for limits to how much spectrum their larger competitors will be allowed to acquire.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has worried about numerous implications of the auction for the industry, including the push for participation and the ultimate rearrangement of how frequencies are used after changing hands.
The FCC has promoted channel sharing as a way for TV stations to clear up spectrum and sell their airwaves in the auction without leaving the broadcasting business.
Channel sharing would not affect the availability of familiar TV content to consumers, experts say. With digital television, the virtual channel numbers that viewers see displayed on TV are unrelated to radio frequency channels.
In an order last year, the FCC said it was "interested in possibly authorizing one or more channel sharing pilots in order to demonstrate the technical and legal arrangements necessary to implement a successful channel sharing operation."
"This project gives us the opportunity to explore channel sharing in the real world," said Scott Bergmann, CTIA's vice president for regulatory affairs.
"It's another way that broadcasters might participate in the auction ... and broadcaster participation is key to having a successful auction and freeing up more spectrum."
Bergmann said the CTIA will be filing a request for the FCC to approve the pilot program. With the commission's approval, the pilot would run through the first quarter of 2014.
The FCC in 2012 passed rules to guide the process of channel sharing for TV stations looking to participate in the spectrum auction but the technical and legal aspects of it have not been tried in the industry.
"We want broadcasters to know that sharing means separating themselves from the future of broadcast television, by which I mean mobile, 4K, 8K (new high-definition formats) and multicasting," NAB President Gordon Smith said in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine published last week.
"That would be equivalent to Ford saying they were going to keep building cars, but only the Ford Mustang," he said.
The CTIA said the two Los Angeles stations volunteered to participate in the pilot. KLCS is a public broadcasting station, and KJLA is home to Spanish-language entertainment network LATV.
Los Angeles is the second-biggest broadcasting market in the United States after New York.
In the pilot, KLCS would try hosting KJLA's content and transmitting various video feeds, including high definition, to see how channel sharing may work between two unaffiliated broadcasters. The results would be reported to the FCC.
(Editing by Ros Krasny and Matthew Lewis)