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FCC Faces Busy Fall

Last week, the FCC held a back-to-school digital communications primer for parents and kids. It could as easily have held a back-to-work primer for staffers who face a relentlessly busy fall—or at least pressure from industry, public interest groups and others to get readin’ and writin’ about some initiatives being watched closely by broadcasters and cable operators.

The commission will have to do all that work while under the scrutiny of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which last week made FCC reform one of its fall priorities. Here are the most pressing assignments:

Spectrum auctions: First on the FCC’s list, at least as far as broadcasters are concerned, is publishing a plan for how it will reconfigure the broadcast band after it reclaims spectrum and auctions it off for wireless broadband. A well-placed commission source said there are a variety of options and that it must wait to see the language in pending legislation before it can detail implementing that legislation.

Broadcasters have long been pressing the commission for details, but there is a chickenand- egg quality about the exercise. Broadcasters can’t support spectrum auction legislation without assurances it won’t result in spectrum repacking and sharing that is less than voluntary and creates interference. The FCC won’t detail how it will configure that auction or repacking until legislation passes, but with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 having come and gone without passage of a spectrum bill, there will be added pressure on Congress and the FCC.

Retransmission consent reforms: While broadcasters would be happy with a light touch on a system they say is working, cable operators are pushing the FCC to vote out its notice of proposed rulemaking, preferably with tougher reforms than it initially signaled.

Members of the American Television Alliance, a coalition of cable and satellite operators and others, has been pushing for action, citing a host of retrans deals currently being renegotiated or expiring at the end of this month.

In a sharply worded email two weeks ago, Rocco Commisso, head of cable operator and alliance member Mediacom, implored the FCC to get off the stick—final comments on the FCC’s proposals came in at the end of June—and further criticized the FCC for what Commisso said was its “inexplicable inaction.” The commission is likely to get some questions from Congress about the whereabouts of its decision if there are multiple impasses before the FCC weighs in.

Media Ownership reform: The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected an appeal of its July decision vacating the loosened newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules on procedural grounds and remanded them back to the FCC for better justification or a different approach. The different approach broadcasters would prefer is getting rid of the ban altogether, or at the very least, a little help in the form of some regulatory certainty that recognizes broadcasters are in a fight for their lives against competing delivery systems, including wireless broadband being promoted by the FCC.

While last week’s decision may be appealed to the Supreme Court, the Third Circuit has cleared the way for the FCC to take yet another crack at the rules through its quadrennial rule review process, which was awaiting that court decision for direction. An FCC official confi rmed on background a fall time frame for wrapping up the review.

The gang’s not all here…yet: Former FCC adviser Ajit Pai and Senate Commerce counsel Jessica Rosenworcel are still the leading candidates for the empty FCC seat vacated by Republican Meredith Attwell Baker and the vacancy that will be created by the departure at year’s end of Commissioner Michael Copps, according to various sources. As the picks of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Republican Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), the Pai and Rosenworcel nominations are expected to be paired and submittted for Senate consideration by the end of the year.

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