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Digital Balancing Act

New President Barack Obama has made boosting broadband both the centerpiece of his tech policy and one of the elements of the economic stimulus package he argues is crucial to the nation's fiscal health. But some in the communications industry are looking to turn that pledge into leverage against other proposals that are on the new administration's media agenda.

The Obama camp's proposed move of the DTV transition date from Feb. 17, coming at almost the same time the President-elect was unveiling that stimulus package, is a good example. By delaying the transition, critics say it undercuts the broadband rollout efforts by some in the wireless industry and the old administration. That's because wireless providers can't expand into newly acquired spectrum until stations occupying that spectrum give it up. Some of that extra spectrum is also going to law enforcement agencies.

“This is a big anti-stimulus,” says one veteran former Bush administration official, as well as one more potential delay for the public safety community. “Public safety agencies have been waiting a decade for this stuff, and they have approved projects ready to go. So, there are hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be spent in a strategically important sector of the industry. And we get the added benefit of increased homeland and national security. And on the commercial side, we are talking literally tens of billions in increased infrastructure, all of which evaporates the second they delay this thing.”

In a letter to top legislators, Verizon asked them not to move the transition date. Verizon Chairman Ivan Seidenberg told them that the delay “will slow the broadband deployment that President-elect Obama has repeatedly emphasized as an essential contributor to the long-term economic, productivity and wage growth in the United States.” Later, the communications giant said it could live with a short delay, but that an extended one could “harm the economy and broadband's future.”

According to a source with the then-Obama transition team, the request was made to move the DTV date with the understanding that it would not overly delay the rollout of advanced services by companies waiting to get their hands on the spectrum.

Then there is the media diversity initiative from Ion Media and BET founder Bob Johnson that promised a greater diversity of media voices, which is also high on President Obama's media agenda. Ion and Johnson have teamed up to propose creating an African-American-targeted TV network employing the digital bandwidth of Ion's TV stations, with the added caveat that they will need the FCC to guarantee carriage of those signals on cable systems to make the network viable. The proposal involved Ion transferring a portion of control of those licenses to Johnson and Urban TV.

That initiative has the backing of a number of civil rights organizations, notably Rainbow/PUSH, which is based in Chicago, the new president's political hometown, and headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Along with others, Jackson opposed an earlier FCC diversity effort that involved leasing spectrum, comparing it to “media sharecropping.”

Those groups framed the initiative with language that evoked the buzzwords of the Obama administration, stating that “there's hope change will come and that one day the nation's African-American citizens will celebrate a Communications Policy and Civil Rights Holiday.”

They appear to be preaching to the choir. President Obama was a strong supporter of diversity and minority ownership of the media as a senator. When the new White House tech agenda was posted last week, “encouraging diversity in the ownership of broadcast media” was No. 2 on the list of tech policy items, behind network neutrality.

But in arguing at the FCC that the government shouldn't grant mandatory carriage for Urban TV, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) said that channel capacity is at a premium and that being forced to carry the Urban TV “stations” could prevent them from carrying the programs and services their customers want.

The NCTA also made a similar point to the Obama transition team last month in a letter about the broadband rollout plank in the president's platform, telling FCC review team co-chair Susan Crawford that the new FCC should resist placing new demands and constraints on bandwidth use that is “totally divorced from what consumers want.” According to the NCTA, this involves “faster broadband, more high-definition content, and the deployment of new innovative and interactive services.”

John Lawson, Ion's executive VP for policy and strategic initiatives, says the broadband push will actually help his company's cause: “We think that particularly with government incentives, there definitely should be some kind of public interest obligation that goes with that.” He is hoping that obligation would be carrying Urban TV and perhaps Qubo, too, the company's multicast kids network.

He points to the diversity plank in the Obama tech policy plan, which was initially co-authored by Julius Genachowski, the presumptive nominee for FCC chairman and Obama tech policy adviser: “We think what we are doing with Urban TV is highly consistent with that.”

But it will be up to the FCC's new chairman and the Democratic-controlled Congress to decide how the president's goals on diversity and a smoother DTV transition square with the urgent push for ubiquitous broadband.

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