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Editorial: Future Tense

Spectrum incentive auctions seem increasingly likely to be adopted in some form. How much of the spectrum crunch/crisis/shortfall/ exhaustion is because of: a) an actual shortage of that spectrum— currently or in the future; b) less-than-efficient use of wireless spectrum by current holders, and/or c) buy-andhold strategies by wireless companies, is the $64 thou- or, rather, the $64 billion question. And it won’t be answered by any FCC release of a retro infographic, like the one the agency put out last week in an attempt to market the spectrum giveback to the public.

Whatever the motives for the spectrum push, the explosion of smartphone use is undeniable, as is the move to accessing more video online— and broadcasters are using those phones and remaking their video delivery models online.

Legislators from both parties have been talking for a while now about the need to get the FCC that incentive auction authority. And with the billions for the treasury an auction would produce, it is likely to get traction with the deficit reduction Supercommittee that has become a focus of lobbying efforts on both sides of the issue.

The practical reality is that the FCC is probably going to get the authority to compensate broadcasters for moving off of spectrum. The FCC already has the authority to repack broadcasters; the commission could even take back licenses altogether if it concluded there was a public interest that trumped their service.

There isn’t, but that’s a point FCC officials have continued to make, with a gentle—OK, not so gentle—prod to the industry. And compensating those who voluntarily exit is something broadcasters recognize is in their interest, especially when they consider the alternative.

But it is not in the broadcasting business’ interest for some to get a payout if those that remain are left gasping for breath.

That’s why the FCC needs to be committed to maintaining a vibrant over-the-air service for the millions who rely on it—as the FCC’s chairman has himself stated…at times.

The National Association of Broadcasters has made “hold harmless” the new standard of care, and it should be the FCC’s standard as well.

The FCC should also use some of that vaunted “transparency” that is the agency’s mantra to give broadcasters a better view of how those among them that don’t cash out will be treated. It is difficult for broadcasters to support a spectrum incentive auction plan without knowing what the FCC’s plan for them will ultimately look like.

The commission has still not provided details about how it plans to repack stations, or exactly what the impact of channel-sharing will be. There is a bit of a Catch-22 about the issue, with the FCC indicating it will not be able to outline a plan until it gets the incentive auction authority from Congress and sees what that bill will entail. Broadcasters are reluctant to support giving the FCC the auction authority until they know how the commission will use it (on? against? for?) broadcasters.

Broadcasters should get commitments to protections for coverage and signal strength in writing before they can support auction legislation because, well, a cornered broadcaster battling for his or her life is not a fight Congress wants to pick.

The commission has also not responded to requests from the National Association of Broadcasters and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) for the status of negotiations with Canada and Mexico over border channel-protection issues that must be resolved, or else some cities could be left with few, if any, TV stations. That seems like an answer the FCC should be able to provide.

The B&C Hall of Fame—which inducts a new class this week—is already filled with broadcasters who have entertained, informed, delighted and, yes, saved lives. When we announce the Hall’s class for this magazine’s 100th anniversary in 2031, we want to be able to salute a new generation of public servants in a healthy, competitive broadcasting business, though one we expect will look quite different—perhaps through 4D glasses and with wireless partners applauding at tableside. Hmmm…Maybe the FCC should work on that infographic.