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FCC's Epstein: Incentive Auctions Have 'Tremendous Benefits' for Broadcasters

Gary Epstein, senior adviser and co-lead of the FCC's
Incentive Auction Task Force, said Thursday that spectrum incentive auctions
will offer "tremendous benefits to broadcasters."

In a Q&A session after a speech to the Media Institute
pitching the FCC's recently issued rulemaking on an incentive auction
framework, Epstein outlined those benefits by dividing broadcasters into two
groups, those who would be participating in the auctions, and those who would

The benefits for the first, he said, were money for those
who gave up their spectrum and money to invest in their stations' programming
for those who agreed to share channels, both of which are proposed options in
the auctions.

For those not giving up spectrum, he identified the benefits
as "following the dictates of the statute with respect to interference and
also minimizing disruption to the consumer."

The FCC, in the National Broadband Plan that proposed the
auctions, had initially projected reclaiming 120 MHz from broadcasters, but
there has been some suggestion that total could be much less and the FCC has
not been talking up that number. The FCC in the NPRM recognized that how much
spectrum it will get depends on the approach it takes to the auctions, which
will not be finalized until a vote on final rules projected for mid-2013.
Epstein confirmed that the FCC was no longer speculating on that total, saying
that the auction would decide that.

As to whether a 2014 target for completing the auctions was
unrealistic because it was such a complicated proceeding, Epstein called them
"aggressive but achievable" deadlines, but that some of the timing
will depend on the comments the FCC gets.

He said the FCC's job is to make the auction understandable
and easy for broadcasters to participate after which "the economic
decision-making of broadcasters will drive how much spectrum we end up

In his speech, Epstein addressed the criticisms of the 2014
auction target given the admittedly complex auction process with plenty of
moving pieces. He said there had been similar criticisms throughout the history
of FCC auctions, dating back to the days of Chairman Mark Fowler in the 1980s,
pointing out he was there (Epstein was at the FCC then as Common Carrier Bureau
chief. He returned to the FCC to head DTV transition efforts in 2009 under
acting chairman Michael Copps, then was tapped by Genachowski to help with the
DTV transition).

Epstein said that, instead, the 80-some auctions held since
Fowler got the FCC the auction authority had proved very successful, raking in
$50 billion for the treasury.

But he recognized that the combination incentive reverse
auction--broadcasters compete for who will take the least for their
spectrum--and forward auction--the rights to use that spectrum are sold to the
highest bidder, presumably wireless companies--is a first-of-its-kind effort.

Epstein did not have an estimate of how long after the
auctions are completed stations not giving up spectrum or sharing spectrum
would be repacked. He did point out statutorily that the FCC has three years to
pay broadcasters for making that move. But the FCC has proposed giving
broadcasters the option of taking an upfront estimate of those costs or waiting
to submit the real costs.

John Eggerton
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.