NAB President Smith: Broadcasters Aren't 'Spectrum ATM'

Calling the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan the "great spectrum grab," National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith told a broadcaster audience Monday in Las Vegas that that the spectrum reclamation portion of the plan was an example of "unnecessary government intervention."

In a gloves-off keynote speech to the annual NAB convention Monday, according to a copy of his prepared remarks, Smith told the audience that broadcasters were not a "spectrum ATM," and that the government needed to do a thorough inventory of where the spectrum is, who has it, how it is being used, and to look at compression technologies before squeezing broadcasters out.

"To put it simply, this spectrum reallocation is bad for consumers and bad for broadcasters," he said. "It's not voluntary as originally advertised.

Smith said the FCC plan does not recognize the lifesaving or lifeline values of broadcasting.

"The sad truth is that the people who would be most hurt by the new broadband plan are the disadvantaged and the elderly," he said. "Fifteen percent of households rely exclusively on free, over the air television. And that number appears to be growing, post DTV transition."

Gordon signaled in interview last week that he was going to be tough on the plan, which he has likened to an offer from the Mob that carries an implicit threat.

Smith pointed out that the industry already gave back almost a quarter of its spectrum in the DTV transition [a transition he said broadcasters' had spent $15 billion to make], "and they [the government] haven't even started to use it yet. The FCC wants another 120 MHz from broadcasters within five years, proposing to get it via a voluntary program in which broadcasters would be compensated from some of the proceeds from the spectrum, which would be re-auctioned for wireless broadband.

"Broadcasting is not an ATM that can keep spitting out spectrum," he said.

Smith applauded FCC chairman Julius Genachowski for a "truly comprehensive" effort in putting together the broadband plan, saying broadcasters are willing to help build a future in which broadband and broadcasting are both part of a bright future.

But he also suggested that effort might already be overtaken by events and the pace of technological change. "Remember the 1996 Telecom Act? [Smith is well versed, having been an Oregon Senator at the time]. The ink was barely dry before it was substantially outdated due to technological advancements. The National Broadband Plan took a year and a half, and over $20 million, to draft. Imagine all the innovation that took place while the plan was being drafted."

He said broadcasters were willing to volunteer to try to resolve any broadband problems, and to "embrace" a broadband plan that was "truly voluntary." But when the plan says: "The government's ability to reclaim, clear and re-auction spectrum is the ultimate backstop against market failure and is an appropriate tool when a voluntary process stalls entirely," that is about as voluntary as Marlon Brando in The Godfather's advice that "he wanted either the guy's signature or his brains on the contract."

Smith also suggested content regulation of the medium is an argument for the government to preserve it.

"As you know, broadcasting is regulated to observe community standards of decency," he said, while "broadband is not. The unpleasant truth is that the Internet is rampant with lewd and degrading material. Here is the half-facetious irony: if broadcasting loses spectrum and grandma's new HDTV is rendered useless, at least she will have the consolation of knowing her grandson can get lewd material instantaneously on his cell phone."

Turning briefly to the retransmission-consent impasses that have prompted Congressional response and an FCC inquiry, Smith said that cable operators need big-ticket shows like the Olympics, the Super Bowl, American Idol and Lost, but don't want to pay for them.

"[P]ay TV doesn't want to compensate us -- despite the fact that our content is the backbone of every pay TV package sold, he told his audience. He suggested incredulity at cable industry efforts to position itself as consumer-friendly on Capitol Hill. "That's right - the cable guy as the consumer advocate! Folks, you just can't make this stuff up."

Broadcasters are scheduled to hear from Julius Genachowski Tuesday. Smith said last week he would be looking for assurances from the chairman and his broadband team that the end game is not to force broadcasters off their band in favor of wireless broadband.

John Eggerton

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.