Television spectrum space gets a bipartisan defense


During opening remarks at the House Communications Subcommittee hearing on the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, two key members expressed concerns about talk of repurposing television spectrum for other wireless services. And the Subcommittee’s chairman said that a voluntary program was the right approach.

Most members did not speak on that particular, and only one of the five FCC commissioners did. Michael Copps echoed remarks that his colleague Mignon Clyburn had made during the 3/16/10 Open Meeting at which the Plan was unveiled.

The most ringing endorsement came from Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (D-MI), who left no doubt about where he stood. He said broadcast television has already surrendered significant spectrum – 33% — back to the government, and that surrendering any more put to goals of diversity and localism at risk. He strongly suggested that the FCC work with the NTIA on spectrum inventory, as an E&C bill provides for, before touching any of broadcast television’s remaining spectrum.

His remarks were echoed immediately for former Subcommittee chair Fred Upton (R-MI), who noted that there was a significant investment in the DTV transition, allowing broadcasters to increase their service to consumers.

The current subcommittee chair, Rick Boucher (D-VA), said a voluntary approach to reclamation of TV spectrum was the correct approach.

Michael Copps testified that he was concerned about any aspect of spectrum reallocation mentioned in NBP that might further harm localism and diversity. He said that encouraging a well-informed electorate had to be an underlying principle of communications policy, and that included taking into account both broadband and tradition media. He stated that journalism was suffering and means to rejuvenate it on all media needed to be considered.

Mignon Clyburn had made similar statements at the FCC’s unveiling at its Open Meeting, but chose to address other issues during this hearing. Neither Julius Genachowski nor Meredith Baker specifically addressed television issues in their opening oral statements.

Robert McDowell did not mention any one user of spectrum specifically, but he suggested that the search for more begin with that already in the hands of the government.

Genachowski did indicate that his view on reclaiming television spectrum was at least neutral under questioning from Upton. Upton stated that he and many colleagues want to make sure that broadcasters are not forced to give away spectrum for auction. Asked if the FCC was on the same page with that, Genachowski said yes and explained that NBP calls for a “win-win-win” program that works for all concerned parties and does not rely on force. He offered to later discuss the question in more detail with Upton.

Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) had a few questions on content rights protection. McDowell noted that the FCC was not the expert agency on that topic, and Genachowski agreed that although the NBP does address the topic, it was not a core concern when it was being drafted. McDowell and Baker both expressed their belief that strong anti-enforcement policy would be good for broadband development going forward.

Anna Eshoo (D-CA) also expressed concerned about spectrum being forcibly wrested away from public television broadcasters. Genachowski suggested that noncom television has the same win-win opportunity as do commercial broadcasters.

RBR-TVBR observation: As was noted during this hearing, particularly by McDowell, the National Broadband Plan is not an end, it’s a start. It is a report, not a proposed rulemaking, and did not require a commissioner vote. It’s a blueprint, nothing more, and the heavy lifting going forward will probably be done by Congress.

How close Congress sticks to NBP as a blueprint remains to be seen. But it was refreshing to hear endorsements of television broadcasters. It is also significant, we think, that there was absolutely nobody on the Subcommittee saying that grabbing television spectrum should be a priority.

The fact that the FCC crafted NBP in a little over a year is one thing. Any bets on Congress matching that timetable?

We didn’t think so – the inherent deliberate pace of Congressional proceedings, combined with positive voices behind television broadcasting, is cause for optimism.

This optimism comes with a caveat, however. Television is being praised for its ability to deliver news and information tailored to a local market. If the medium is going to retain all of its defenders, it will have to continue to deliver the goods.