Copps: Both Broadcasting and Wireless Are Essential

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said Thursday he hoped that the spectrum debate was not devolving into a communications civil war, but said it probably was. He also gave a shout out to both broadcasting and wireless as "essential," and said that the FCC needs to do a better job of inventorying spectrum.

That came in an interview for C-SPAN's Communicators series. The "civil war" comment was in response to statements by National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith about the efficiency of broadcasting's one-to-many model versus the one-to-one cellular delivery model. Smith has said there might not be enough spectrum in the universe to accommodate one-to-one video.

Copps said he considered himself a friend of broadcasters, particularly smaller and independent broadcasters whose use of the spectrum he said "very often" serves the nation well. But he also said he understood "full well" that spectrum needs to be used and that there are swaths of broadcast spectrum, particularly the so-called "digital dividend"--broadcasters multicast channels, that aren't being fully used. He said wireless devices were spectrum hungry and would unquestionably need to be fed.

But even given that appetite, Copps said he did not think that in "every instance" it was in the public interest to remove spectrum from a broadcaster and give it to a "wireless duopoly. Copps said it needs to be market-by-market call. Realizing that "both broadcasters and wireless perform essential public services in the 21st century, and that those who are doing a good job should be recognized for doing a good job, and that includes a lot of broadcasters."

Copps said the FCC needs to get a better handle on how spectrum is being used. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said two weeks ago that the FCC had completed "one of the most substantial and comprehensive evaluations of spectrum in the Commission's history." That includes its Spectrum Dashboard (an updated version is being released this month, he said). The FCC has identified what bands of spectrum are used for, who holds the licenses, where the licenses are and other information.

Genachowski said he supported exploring ways to "more exhaustively" inventory spectrum, including use, but said measuring actual use was not necessary to identify "primary opportunities for unleashing additional commercial spectrum." He also said the FCC faced the challenge of determining whether a use study was worth the tens of millions of dollars and several years it would take to complete.

Copps acknowledged the FCC has made progress. But he also said that he didn't think anyone in the country "has the foggiest idea right now what spectrum is being used for what particular purpose."

That didn't mean that the FCC should stand still in the meantime, he said, but added: "We ought to have a better idea of what's going on with that spectrum." He said it was not an easy task, and conceded it was expensive, but said: "we need to do more."

Copps has concerns about the incentive auctions Congress will need to approve if broadcasters are to be compensated to move off spectrum to make way for wireless. He said he thought the stations that would be attracted by an incentive auction would be "hard-pressed minority" stations in large markets who are having trouble serving the public and making a go of it, or hedge funds looking to play the numbers game.

Copps signaled that his would be a tough vote to get on a proposed AT&T-T-Mobile merger. He pointed out that he had said the Comcast/NBCU merger was a steep climb for him, and he wound up voting against it. "This is maybe even a steeper climb." He asked that his colleagues pay attention to what "residue" of competition would be left over after the two companies combined to control some 80% of wireless spectrum, and the impact would be on American jobs. He said he had not gotten a satisfactory answer.

He is concerned that all the money on the table in the deal (some $39 billion) could wind up supporting telecommunications in Europe rather than the U.S. (T-Mobile is owned by Deutsche Telekom). Copps said the deal could "suck the oxygen" out of key issues before the commission like public safety and spectrum auctions. He pondered whether having one less competitor in the wireless space for spectrum would make incentive auctions more or less attractive.

Copps said if the deal were to be approved, he would be looking for a network neutrality condition. Currently, per the FCC's network neutrality rules, wireless is only subject to transparency and Web site non-blocking conditions.

Copps said he would like to see the FCC release its future of media report soon, which was initially targeted for last year. Otherwise, he said, "the future of the media report will wind up being the past of the media report."
The FCC launched the future of media initiative in February 2010. At the time, the plan was to get it out by the end of 2010.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.