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MMTC Hosts Spectrum Auction Debate

It was billed as an Entrepreneurship and Innovation panel on telecom policy, but as happens frequently in this town (Washington), the topic of a Minority Media & Telecommunications Council panel session played host to the continuing debate over spectrum and incentive auctions.

That was to be expected since the panel included both Chris Guttman of CTIA and Jane Mago EVP and general counsel of the National Association of Broadcasters, who are on opposite sides of the issue.

Mago pointed out that the Hispanic community was still a major and important consumer of over-the-air TV -- an audience member from LULAC (the League of United Latin American Citizens) broke in to suggest that was because cable was too expensive and if Comcast would just lower its rates...

Guttman said his organization was not out to deep six broadcasting and wanted to dispel the notion that Congress wanted to get rid of free over-the-air TV in favor of pay.

He was seconded on that score-actually in was Guttman doing the seconding -- by Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council.

Not only did he say that they were not out to get rid of broadcasting, but that the incentive auctions could be configured so that no stations were lost. Mago interceded to say she did not know how that would be possible given that there were over 600 stations that would have to give up spectrum or move.

That issue was raised earlier at the conference by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who pointed out that the reduction in TV stations could mean a reduction in opportunities for his audience and that the FCC should include new media in the mix when looking at opportunities for ownership.

Mago said that the government should also look at more effective use of spectrum, including making networks more efficient and encouraging the build-out of spectrum in the pipeline but waiting to be deployed -- NAB has suggested wireless companies are sitting on spectrum they could be using.

Mago was outnumbered on the panel, but got some help from the audience. The owner of a Bay Area TV station with multicultural multicast channels said that reclaiming spectrum was not just about money, but about decreased opportunities for entrepreneurs like himself. He pointed out that, as it is, only 3% of stations are owned by women and minorities.

Guttman said he could keep his spectrum if he wanted to, but that those that may want to "monetize and move on to another investment," should have that opportunity. He said CTIA has always said broadcasters' return of spectrum should be voluntary, something it has not demanded of the government or satellite spectrum in play, he added.

Garfield said that what the FCC was doing was structuring auctions to leverage market mechanisms. Broadcasters like the Bay Area entrepreneur could choose to keep his spectrum, while others could choose to sell. He also pointed out there would chances for entrepreneurs to use the unlicensed spectrum it has advocated be made available as part of the spectrum reclamation and re-use plan.

Garfield said the bottom line was that spectrum was scarce and getting scarcer. Earlier in the conference, Verizon EVP Tom Tauke said that spectrum in New York would be running out next year, while it would take some seven years to get the spectrum from the broadcast auction.

Mago's bottom line was that Congress needed to make sure the auctions were truly voluntary so that there would be spectrum available for all services, but that it should not "throw out the baby with the bath water."