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Editorial: Hitting the Ground Running

Starting Jan. 1, Gordon Smith, National Association of Broadcasters president and former GOP senator, will be able to lobby his former colleagues in Congress directly. That will be just in time to greet a newly Republican House majority that shares his fiscal conservatism and small-government philosophy. Smith needs to persuade both sides of the aisle in both houses of two things: Broadcasting has a role in the broadband future, and broadcasters deserve the billions it will take to compensate those who agree to clear out or buddy up for the sake of wireless broadband.

The FCC’s stewards continue to make the right noises about it being a voluntary program, but have yet to foreclose the alternative. FCC chief Julius Genachowski has said there is a spectrum crunch bordering on crisis, and desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Broadcasters must treat the FCC’s promise of “voluntary” moves and preserving broadcasting as a “trust but verify” pledge at every turn for broadcasters. To that end, the NAB has encouraged its members to use their airwaves starting next month to pitch broadcasting’s digital future as bright, unless the government steps in to dim it.

The FCC has taken the first steps toward reclaiming as much spectrum as it can get from broadcasters. It will be Smith’s, and broadcasters’, challenge to make sure that when the FCC connects some of the dots of its hopeful proposals for sharing and repacking stations, that broadcasters are still in the picture. For instance, the FCC’s desire to move broadcasters into the VHF band, essentially a second DTV transition, is because UHF is better for mobile broadband. But it is also better for DTV transmissions. So, the FCC says it will look for ways to improve VHF reception. That improvement must come before any thought of moving broadcasters.

Then there is repacking and channel-sharing, which is shoehorning more stations into smaller spaces in that VHF spectrum. Broadcasters that share channels will literally not have the bandwidth to capitalize on all the services NAB says are the medium’s future, including DTV multicast channels, mobile DTV and even, eventually, 3D.

While Genachowski holds out hope for a win-win-win for consumers, wireless broadband providers and broadcasters, his focus is clearly on the first two “wins.” He as much as said so when pointing out in a recent speech the relatively small number of over-the-air viewers left versus those getting their TV over cable or satellite or, increasingly, the Web. It will be up to Smith to make sure that third “win” remains more than just lip service.