Copps Pushes Localism, Non-Discrimination Principle

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps Thursday said it was time to do away with the eight-year, "postcard" station license renewal process and replace it with a three-year renewal with public interest obligations attached.

He also pledged to add a fifth, nondiscrimination principle to the FCC's four Internet freedoms.

Copps told reporters after his stem-winding speech at a Free Press summit on media reform in Washington Thursday that he was not saying he planned a vote on proposed localism proposals during his acting chairmanship.

"I don't think I was talking quite in that specific a context. I think it is incumbent upon the commission to tee these up. This is not just a one-shot deal. I think some of these larger decisions are going to wait for the arrival of a new commission."

Asked if he was working on them now, Copps said. "Absolutely. Have I ever stopped?" He also said he hoped that was one of the first things a newly reconstituted FCC would do.

Copps said he was specifically talking about a "reasonable set" of public interest guidelines, but not anything that was "onerous or burdensome or difficult to come into compliance with." But he did say licensees in exchange for their privilege to use the airwaves should be required to demonstrate that they are serving the public interest.

Also speaking at the Free Press conference, Obama administration official Susan Crawford said that Copps was undertaking a lot of initiatives that were "very helpful to the public interest." She did not specify which those were, however.

Copps said he had not had "detailed discussions" with presumptive new chairman, Julius Genachowski, but added that, "from everything I know about him and clearly what I know about President Obama, I think there is strong understanding of the depth of the problem and a determination to do something about them."

But he would stop short of translating what he thinks is there support for a progressive media policy to whether they support "A, B, C, or D."

One of the things that Copps plans to make part of the FCC's congressionally-mandated national broadband rollout plan would be a fifth, nondiscrimination, principle of Internet access similar to the anti-discrimination condition that was applied to the merger of AT&T and Bell South.

He explained the principle, similar to that condition, would "go into not prioritizing, or privileging or degrading content when it comes to Internet Access. So, I think you would have a principle like that established and laid down with some clarity and have some recourse at the FCC to apply it. If folks have complaints, everybody knows there is a place to go that can adjudicate those complaints and try to make an intelligent decision of is that really unreasonable discrimination or is that reasonable network management."

He said he understood that would not be an easy call. "But I think it is necessary that you have a place where those questions can be raised and people have confidence they will be resolved."

Copps said the fifth principle would not necessarily be in lieu of network neutrality legislation, however. "I think what we are looking for is something the FCC can do in their nearterm future. I think that is a reasonable approach. I think if Congress in its wisdom [knew] that more is needed to insure network neutrality, they could and should go ahead and do that."

As with the localism issues, Copps suggested adopting the principle would likely come under his successor, though he also said he planned to still be around as commissioner. "Assuming that this internship doesn't last forever, the better part is to wait if it is near term."

But Copps quickly added that the FCC was not in wait-and-see mode. "We are very active in the broadband plan. Between that and the DTV transition, this is obviously the busiest FCC we have had in the eight years that I have been around there. So it is not an FCC waiting for someone to get there. It is an FCC that is 110% engaged."

Copps did not say what he would like to see the FCC do in terms of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, saying only that he would like to see the FCC "propound policies that promote localism, diversity and competition."

He said he would like to see FCC policy that "eventuates in more newsrooms, not less; in more investigative journalism, not less; and amplifies the public interest more, not less."

The National Association of Broadcasters has fought commission Democrat’s push for a three-year renewal.

“NAB would respectfully oppose attempts to shorten license renewal terms,” said NAB Executive VP Dennis Wharton in a statement. “Congress wisely reformed license renewal terms to allow broadcasters to better compete against our pay platform competitors. Reducing a broadcaster's term of license would actually harm localism by injecting greater uncertainty into a business model facing the worst advertising downturn in decades."

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.