FCC Has Timing Problem With Spectrum Plans

When it comes to the FCC’s spectrum reclamation plans—the biggest issue facing broadcasters in Washington—you might say the commission is ready to reap. Congress, however, is putting up a strong warning that the FCC can’t start the harvest till it has taken account of the vast MHz bumper crop—a process that could take years. It is a major disconnect, with the commission facing its own broadband policy version of a spectrum crunch.

While the commission’s plan is to reclaim broadcast (and other) spectrum for wireless as part of its national broadband plan, a bill working its way through Congress (it has already passed the House with strong bipartisan support) anticipates that the FCC will need at least a couple of years’ worth of spectrum inventory- taking to figure out where it can get said spectrum.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski assured the NAB during his speech at its convention two weeks ago that the commission was not figuring on making the spectrum reclamation plan mandatory. The issue now, however, is whether the agency can follow through with the plan at all, voluntary or not.

The commission wishes to put out its proposal in less than six months. This despite the broadband team’s pledge that the FCC would let data determine outcomes, rather than trying to use that data to support a predetermined plan.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Communications Subcommittee, has made it clear that he doesn’t want the FCC to decide from whom to take spectrum until a spectrum inventory is completed in conjunction with the NTIA, as directed by the bill. Such an inventory would take into account federal as well as private spectrum holdings.

If the commission forges ahead regardless, it will have some explaining to do to Boucher, as well as to the chairman emeritus of the full committee, John Dingell (D-Mich.), who has seconded Boucher’s directive.

Making matters even more complicated, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has told the FCC he wants action even faster than an agenda that Genachowski has suggested is unprecedented in its scope and aggressiveness.

What’s an FCC to do? If the commission’s broadband team knows, it is not saying.

One top Washington attorney who asked not to be identified says, “I think Boucher, Dingell and others have made it clear they want this spectrum inventory.”

David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, the broadcasters’ spectrum lobby, says the FCC’s congressional mandate is clear: “If the FCC comes out with a proceeding this summer, presuming it proposes the reallocation, that would mean it is doing [this] without the benefit of that spectrum inventory.”

The FCC is scrambling to find the express congressional intent behind network neutrality legislation, but it would seem the intent of Congress is clear. “This isn’t putting the cart before the horse,” says one Washington executive with skin in the game. “This is putting the freight train before the horse.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.