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McDowell: Hill Running Out Of Time To Approve Spectrum Auctions

 FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said Friday that time was running out for Congress to act on incentive auctions, and that if broadcasters have to be repositioned after spectrum reclamation that would make that process not voluntary by definition.

He was being interviewed for C-SPAN's Communicators series.

The commissioner said he thinks that the FCC's proposed voluntary spectrum auctions will likely result in broadcasters who remain behind having to be repositioned to clear larger blocks of spectrum for wireless. He said that, but definition would not be voluntary, but that if it happens broadcasters need to be compensated "at a minimum to at least make them whole."

He also said the time for Congress to approve those incentive auctions, which would compensate broadcasters for moving off their spectrum, is dwindling, especially with Congress focused on the budget and the war in Libya. "I'm not saying it won't happen this year, but we are starting to run out of time."

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was at a White House event this week, joining with over 100 economists to push Congress to get moving and authorize the auctions.

McDowell also said he has talked with representatives from AT&T and T-Mobile, but would not comment on a merger that is expected soon to be before the commission.

McDowell did say that he would approach that merger, as with any merger, with an eye toward whether there were any harms, and if so, what narrowly tailored remedies might be necessary. He said that the merger review process should not be an excuse to deal with issues outside the scope of the individual merger review.

He conceded that with the FCC's ongoing regulatory oversight of those companies, the FCC imposes conditions that the parties agree to ahead of time that "provide the opportunity for coercion." He says that companies come to the FCC or Justice Department understanding there is a regulatory transaction cost and added that whether that was good public policy was a matter for debate.

On the issue of network neutrality, McDowell said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn's argument that there is nothing broken in the Internet space--McDowell dissented from the FCC's Dec. 21 vote to expand and codify its Internet openness guidelines. Not only that, but he said the FCC does not have the legal authority to do what it is doing.

House Republicans agree and Friday were pushing a resolution to invalidate the new rules, an effort McDowell noted in his interview, pointing out that a bipartisan group of legislators in the last Congress had indicated to the FCC that Congress should be the one giving the FCC direction on its Internet oversight authority.

Asked how he would react if he were in the majority on that net neutrality vote and Congress voted to negate it, McDowell said that "just because someone likes the policy outcome of a particular order by an agency, you still have to respect the process." He said he would like the outcome of a balanced federal budget, but the FCC doesn't have the authority to impose that, either. He pointed out that he had voted against the FCC's data roaming decision Thursday not because he didn't think people should have the ability for their phones to roam on other carriers' networks, but could not support the item because he felt the FCC did not have the legal authority to do it. "We can't exceed our authority even if it is a good idea."

Asked whether he thought the upcoming 2012 presidential and congressional election seasons would affect the FCC, McDowell said yes, adding that he wished it didn't.

"Sometimes different chairmen have been reluctant to tee up items for a vote in an election year that might be considered controversial. One has to ask how many votes does that actually affect what we do and how many voters are actually going to the polls to only vote on an FCC issue. Probably not very many. But it is our job to make tough decisions when they are delivered to us and it is appropriate to act. That should be in the odd numbered years as well as the even."

McDowell said that one place where more spectrum might be found is in the government sector, and that one silver lining of a spectrum crunch would also be to "squeeze more efficiency" out of current spectrum use.