Editorial: Suit-able Auction

The FCC and broadcasters appear to be on a collision course over the incentive auctions. Then again, the road might have been unavoidable, given the underlying government goal of getting broadcasters to give up spectrum for wireless broadband.

No matter how rosy a picture FCC chairman Tom Wheeler paints of the opportunities for broadcasters that wind up with less spectrum, there is something intuitively dissonant about that message while the whole of the argument on the other side of the equation is that spectrum is a precious commodity that wireless companies need to meet the digital communications— and entertainment needs— of the country, and the world.

The FCC’s incentive auction is tantamount to a red flag waved in the faces of broadcasters. It says, in no uncertain terms, that what Congress meant by directing the FCC to make “all reasonable efforts” to protect broadcasters’ coverage areas and interference protections does not mean holding broadcasters harmless in the auction. That, says the FCC, would be unreasonable…given the public interest in getting spectrum from broadcasters. But let’s let the FCC speak for itself: “We find that the statute requires that we use all reasonable efforts to preserve each station’s coverage area and population served without sacrificing the goal of using market forces to repurpose spectrum for new, flexible uses…”

Ouch! The FCC said it wasn’t making protecting broadcasters and freeing spectrum co-equals but would factor in the latter when deciding how to do the former. That caveat leaves a lot of worry room for broadcasters that have not been feeling the love from the FCC for a long time.

Broadcasters will probably sue over some portion of the incentive auction framework order, most likely regarding the software and methodology the FCC is using to calculate coverage areas and interference protections. The FCC will defend it, as they have other suits against other auctions. A suit may or may not affect the timing of the auction, but it is symptomatic of a growing broadcaster disaffection with FCC moves—following suits over the past two weeks against FCC media ownership decisions.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. If the FCC is trying to encourage broadcasters—who hold the key to the auction’s success—to participate fully, it has a mighty strange way of showing it.