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Editorial: Sending theRight Signal

We certainly hope that the FCC’s concept of public service broadcasting is not serving up broadcasting’s spectrum to pay for unemployment benefits.

Not quite two years after the FCC released its National Broadband Plan proposing that broadcasters be encouraged to give up spectrum for wireless broadband, Congress has approved giving the FCC authority to do so, triggering what will amount to a second DTV transition—National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith says it will be more challenging than the first—and raising numerous questions about the future of broadcasting in a broadband world.

Sinclair, one of the two largest TV station group owners and a fierce defender of its broadcast spectrum turf, reiterated to B&C last week that its spectrum is not for sale. The company is encouraging other broadcasters to “just say no,” or rather to “just say yes” to a broadcasting future that will require all of their spectrum.

Of course, it’s not realistic to expect no broadcasters will relinquish spectrum, particularly independents or noncoms in crowded urban markets where they might be able to get millions for spectrum and continue operating as a multicast sub-channel.

But Sinclair may be closer to right than is comfortable for all those wireless spectrum proponents. As one top communications lawyer put it last week, there has been no sign of a stampede toward the exit, perhaps because of the rise in cord-cutting or the realization that broadcast could be part of the solution to any wireless bandwidth bottlenecks, given its vaunted one-to-many architecture.

The Obama administration should care a lot about the millions of minority, poor and elderly viewers who still rely strictly on over-the-air TV. The first DTV transition was held up and billions spent so those viewers would not be left out. To now suggest that their dwindling numbers need to get aboard the broadband wagon or be thrown under the bus, as it were, would not be the right signal to send.

We will hold FCC chairman Julius Genachowski to his statement to this magazine about working with broadcasters to remove barriers to success for broadcasters in a multiplatform world. That will include making sure that the FCC delivers on its promise to protect the signal strength and coverage areas of broadcasters that don’t get out of the business. The legislation requires the FCC to make “all reasonable efforts” to provide that protection. That gives the FCC some wiggle room, but as Blair Levin, architect of the broadband plan, has told this magazine on more than one occasion, it also gives broadcasters the power to delay the spectrum reclamation in the courts over the defi nition of “reasonable.”

The FCC also needs to come out with its auction rules ASAP, so broadcasters have time to kick the tires and read the fine print before deciding what is in their best interests.

And if not enough broadcasters give up spectrum to meet the FCC’s goal, the commission must not use its license authority to make up the difference through any forced moves. Congress made its will clear that spectrum reclamation must be voluntary, so any eminent domain approach to bulldozing broadcasting to make way for the broadband superhighway won’t fly.