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NAB: Spectrum Auction Shouldn’t Delay Deregulation

WASHINGTON — As Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler prepares to circulate the agency’s long-anticipated quadrennial ownership rule review, the National Association of Broadcasters is asking it to give broadcasters more regulatory room to be competitive, warning that the current spectrum auction and its impact on TV stations should not affect that effort.

The FCC is now six years overdue on its 2010 review and two years overdue on its 2014 review, which have been rolled up into one and scheduled for circulation by the end of this month, likely by sometime next week.

In an ex parte filing with the commission, the NAB asks the FCC to eliminate the newspaper-broadcast crossownership rules, "the last remnant of the radio-television cross-ownership rule,” eliminate the eight-voices test for local ownership — no duopolies if it leaves fewer than eight independent voices in a market — and reform the top-four restriction that prevents a duopoly involving two of the four top-rated stations in a market.

The NAB also said that the commission should not use the auction, which could extend through the last quarter of the year, as an excuse not to take action.

“[T]he recently commenced TV spectrum incentive auction provides no basis for the commission to refrain from concluding its 2010 and 2014 quadrennial reviews in the time frame noted by the Third Circuit,” NAB executives said in a letter dated June 21.

“Both Congress and the commission have recognized that an incentive auction inevitably would result in a decrease in the number of TV station licensees,” the letter said. “Indeed, that is the stated purpose of the auction — to persuade broadcasters ‘to relinquish some or all of their spectrum usage rights’ and to ‘clear the highest possible amount of spectrum for broadband.’

"Because Congress and the commission already have decided that reducing the number of TV stations will serve the public interest, the Commission cannot properly use that public interest judgment as a basis to further delay fulfilling its obligations [to modernize] its ownership rules to reflect today’s marketplace," the agency continued.

Tom Wheeler has not shown any proclivity toward major broadcast deregulation, instead having in March 2014 tightened local ownership rules to count most joint sales agreements as ownership, though a federal court recently vacated that tightening because the FCC had taken the action before the quadrennial review.

The NAB said that court decision, as well as the competitive and technological changes in the marketplace, are reasons why the FCC should remove what it has long said are vestiges of another century — make that millennium — when there was no cable, satellite, telco or online competition.

But following the court ruling, the chairman's office quickly indicated that the JSA tightening could return as part of the quadrennial review item.