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Editorial: It’s Either Yes or No

Whether there is a crunch or crisis, shortfall or critical shortage, the search for more spectrum for wireless broadband—which means all those apps for identifying the nearest restaurant or angry bird—has taken over Washington. It’s time for the FCC to clarify what its intentions are.

As the momentum grows from the White House to the Portals (FCC headquarters), broadcasters can be forgiven for being unconvinced by the commission’s promises that its spectrum reclamation proposal is truly voluntary. For one thing, there is the president’s new budget, which has a spectrum fee in it. OK, the president’s budget has had a spectrum fee in it annually for years now. The president proposes, and (for these several years) Congress disposes.

But the budget-cutting is now coming seriously from both parties, and the administration has proposed the fee as a spectrum management tool, rather than simply as a revenue-raiser (several billion over the next 10 years), according to the White House’s proposed FCC budget. Since the White House is also pushing hard for incentive auctions that would compensate broadcasters for clearing off their spectrum, it looks like the government is offering both the carrot of a payday and the stick of a spectrum tax for whoever sticks around.

While the FCC will have the discretion to choose how to levy the fee, which we are told can also be on some satellite, microwave and even taxicab licenses (who knew?), it could still be used to encourage broadcasters to skedaddle, a point the FCC made pretty clearly in its National Broadband Plan.

Against that backdrop, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski last week was asked flat out by the senior Democrat in Congress whether the FCC planned to force broadcasters off their spectrum if there were not enough takers in an incentive auction. This was Rep. John Dingell, so he wanted a yes or no answer. Dingell asked twice, and still didn’t get an answer. He is asking again in writing, and he deserves a reply, as do broadcasters.

Perhaps the answer is that the FCC is supremely confident there will be enough broadcasters who will willingly take the money and run…unless they’re wrong, in which case they have the power and their own incentive to take the spectrum. (Hey, don’t forget all those apps—which, to be fair, also include remote healthcare and education and energy monitoring.) If that is the answer, then say so, and let the broadcasters act and react accordingly. If not, then say that, too.

Broadcasters need to know where they stand with the FCC, particularly if, as it seems, it is in the lengthening shadow of mobile broadband.