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Martin Backs Divvying Up Reclaimed Broadcast Spectrum

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants the spectrum in the upcoming 700 mHz auction to be divided into smaller geographic areas to make it easier for smaller companies and companies owned by minorities and women to bid on it. He also wants to put build-out requirements on services using the new spectrum to spur more radio broadband deployment.

Commissioner Robert McDowell appeared to share Martin's desire for breaking up the 700 mHz spectrum, pointing out the success of that approach in this year's auction of other spectrum--reclaimed from government use--for advanced wireless services.

The broadcast spectrum--channels 54-69--is being reclaimed in the switch to digital and 60 mHz auctioned for advanced wireless services (another 24 mHz is going to emergency communications).

Martin was responding in a letter to a series of pre-hearing questions submitted by John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairmen of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and Telecommunications Subcommittee, respectively.

Martin and the other commissioners are scheduled to appear before Markey's subcommittee at a Feb. 15 oversight hearing, the first in front of the new Democratic majority.

Martin also told the legislators the FCC is considering reclassifying wireless broadband as an information service. That would bring it in line with cable and telco-delivered Internet access, which were reclassified, freeing them from mandatory access provisions and creating the network neutrality debate that has become one of the hottest topics in Washington.

Martin's plug for diversity went beyond the new 700 mHz auction. He put in a plug for ownership diversity, saying "at our public hearings the commission has heard a consistent concern that there are too few local and diverse voices in the community." He said the commission "must make sure that consumers have the benefit of a competitive and diverse media marketplace," but also said that it "must balance concerns about too much consolidation and too little choice with appropriate consideration of the changes and innovation that are taking place in the media marketplace.

McDowell seconded concern for diverse voices, saying: "I am particularly concerned about the decline in female and minority owners of broadcast properties."

Martin made no mention of content issues in his response to a question about the state of the media. Not so for Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, who pushed content enforcement, though pointed out it was Congress restriction that were being enforced. "The commission should complete and issue its report on violent programming," she told the legislators. "In addition, the commission should continue to enforce congressional restrictions on the broadcast of obscene, indecent and profane programming."

McDowell put in a plug for cable in his answer on the state of the media. Citing the FCC's order easing the local franchising process for telcos competing with cable and satellite, he said he hoped the commission would ease the path for "all [he underlined all] video providers, specifically incumbents and over-builders."

While McDowell pointed out that commission Democrats, some in Congress, and even McDowell himself, had raised questions about the FCC's authority to ease that franchising process, "after additional study, I feel we are on safe legal ground," he said.

Commission Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein also called for greater minority participation, as well as tougher public interest standards for broadcasters, better data collection, and closer cooperation with the National Telecommunications & Information Administration on the DTV transition.

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.