When FCC chairman Julius Genachowski exited the commission earlier this month, his media bureau sent broadcasters and some major wireless carriers a pointed parting shot—namely, that the FCC was not on board with the band plan they argue is essential to a successful incentive auction.
Late on May 17, Genachowski’s last day, the FCC issued a public notice seeking comment on various plans of how to repack broadcasters and wireless companies into the spectrum band after the commission reclaims and repurposes that spectrum in the incentive auctions.
Genachowski’s broadband-centricity never made him a favorite uncle of the industry. And the message didn’t exactly leave an endearing last impression, regardless of the fact that lobbyists had advance warning of the item.
The notice requested comment on all the band plan proposals, but took some pains to point to the flaws it saw in the broadcasters/ wireless companies’ plan, saying that it limits market variation and favors certainty “over the utility of providing the maximum amount of spectrum through flexibility to offer a greater quantity of spectrum in geographic areas where more spectrum is available.”
Broadcasters and cable operators don’t want the FCC to mix uplink and downlink spectrum or for broadcasters and wireless companies to use the same channels in different markets, and they do want guard bands free of interference.
The notice was released by the FCC’s media bureau, rather than voted on by the commissioners; as such, broadcasters had company in their unhappiness. Ajit Pai, now the senior—and only—Republican on the commission, said the item was tilting at windmills, referencing Don Quixote’s errant lance work, and should have risen to the full commission level.
“This is precisely the sort of decision that the full commission should make. Any short-term administrative convenience gained by this course of action is outweighed by the sacrifice of commissioners’ input and accountability,” Pai said after the notice had been issued, also pointing out he had only a couple of days’ notice that it was being released.
There had been some internal grumbling at the FCC over the number of items that were being issued at the bureau level—rather than having to be voted on by the commissioners—as the chairman’s term wound down. Those included a waiver to Charter of set-top box regs that consumer electronics companies complained to other offices about, according to sources.
But if the FCC was tilting at windmills, that lance wound up hitting broadcasters where they live—their band plan, which they submitted to the FCC in concert with the wireless industry.
“Let me be clear. The single biggest issue at the moment with the entire auction design is the degree to which broadcasters and wireless companies sharing channels is going to wreak havoc,” said Rick Kaplan, the National Association of Broadcasters’ point man on spectrum issues and their band plan. Kaplan should know: He is the former head of the FCC’s wireless bureau under Genachowski.
“From all of our research, it seems to be a huge problem. It is not clear from the public notice that the bureau staff sees it as a problem at all,” Kaplan added.
AT&T is not happy either. It joined with the NAB last week on an unprecedented joint blog posting saying that of the FCC’s two alternative proposals to the one offered jointly by broadcasters, one “has absolutely no support in the record” and the other “adopts a technological approach contrary to the one proposed by the majority of U.S. carriers.”
They concede that the FCC is trying to give itself flexibility to meet market-by-market variations, but still say there seems to be a “disconnect” between the FCC and the industries—namely, most wireless companies and broadcasters—that will be most affected by the auction.
So what is broadcasters’ next move?
Kaplan, taking the diplomatic route, said the NAB will continue to work with the commission to help them understand the engineering challenge. “I very much hope we can all put our heads together to solve it,” he said.
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