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FCC's McDowell Expresses Concern about ITU Governance of Internet

FCC commissioner Robert McDowell said Friday that his top concern is the prospect of the International Telecommunications Union becoming an international Internet governance body.

McDowell and Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn were speaking at a breakfast at the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council Broadband and Social Justice Summit in Washington. McDowell had just returned from the World Administrative Radio Conference, where he said he tried to talk to as many people as possible about the problems with that prospect, which he said could create a divide between the countries that signed on and those that opted out.

He said the move was being pushed by countries like China and Russia.

Asked about spectrum incentive auction legislation and the interoperable broadband emergency communications network it would fund, McDowell said that he thought that in five years Washington would still be talking about that network, but that it would still not be built out.

He said that he supported incentive auction legislation, and made a pitch for not putting conditions on the auctions -- beyond build-out requirements -- that could limit the players and the potential revenues from the auction. He pointed to the conditions on the C block auction -- of spectrum reclaimed from broadcasters in the DTV transition -- that depressed the price. In that case, he said, the FCC was trying to engineer an auction in which Google could become a competitive wireless carrier. Instead, he pointed out, Google did not bid competitively and Verizon got the spectrum for less than a third of what comparable blocks without encumbrances drew.

Current House spectrum auction legislation would prevent the FCC from putting conditions on bidders, which the FCC's wireless bureau chief says is to ensure the flexibility of creating a competitive auction for players big and small and critics, particularly some Republican legislators, suggest is to limit the participation of one or the other of the major carriers, to the potential detriment of the auction and its take for the treasury.

McDowell conceded that apps are gobbling up spectrum and something has to be done about it. But he also said he thought it was going to be difficult for the government to get to the 500 MHz it is looking for. He also warned against trying to guess where technology is going 10 years from now, which he suggested could be how long it will take to free up broadcast spectrum for wireless.

Clyburn agreed that smartphones were gobbling up spectrum, and that the FCC should take a flexible approach. But she also said that allowing "those with the largest wallets" to gobble up spectrum would not lead to competition, and that the FCC needed to make sure that more players are able to take advantage of a wireless marketplace that was hugely capital intensive.

McDowell said that one way for minorities and small businesses to be players without the big capital outlay was through unlicensed use. He put in another plug for the FCC to get moving on freeing up the so-called "white spaces" in the TV band for unlicensed use, though he conceded that was currently tied to incentive auction legislation teed up but still pending in Congress.

MMTC president David Honig, who took the FCC to task in his keynote address for not stemming the decline in minority media ownership, asked both commissioners whether, now that some major issues like USF reform and media ownership rulemakings had been acted on and the busy FCC had a little more time to devote to diversity issue, historians would look back on 2012 as the year of civil rights at the FCC.

He suggested it was time to restore EEO enforcement and reverse the declines in minority ownership.

Clyburn said that while she shared those goals, the FCC had limits, including a lack of data -- the FCC has yet to complete diversity studies that would help it defend any EEO action in court -- and having to rely on Congress for a minority tax certificate, something for which McDowell has been pushing for years. She said that without data, the FCC would not be able to act on a lot of the diversity-related items/issues -- Honig has a list of 72 -- before it. But she also looked at the positives, which includes a pending low power FM item that could create opportunities for ownership, and said she wanted to be a conduit for success, however her audience defined it.

McDowell said he hoped historians could say that, but that things in Washington tended to move slowly, even more so in an election year. He also called for the FCC to complete the ownership studies.