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NAB's Smith: FCC Spectrum Plan Threatens Border Cities

National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith said Friday that the FCC's spectrum reclamation plan could leave big cities along the border with Canada and Mexico -- Detroit, for example -- without any U.S. over-the-air TV if Canadian and Mexican channel reservations are taken into account, and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said the FCC had not provided him with satisfactory answers on that issue following an official request.

That came in a Friday hearing in the House Communications Subcommittee on the Republican draft of an incentive auction bill. Dingell has his own draft with hefty protections for broadcasters.

In response to questions from Dingell, Smith agreed that 1) if the FCC "went ahead with its goal of reaching 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum" there would be "no channels available for any of Detroit's 14 stations" (an issue the FCC will clearly have to deal with); 2) that, beyond that, and given a similar problem with Mexico, every border city has the potential of having no broadcast television; 3) that NAB has grave reservations about the FCC reclaiming that much spectrum (120 MHZ) "for fear of unfair treatment of broadcasters; 4) explicitly prohibiting the FCC from involuntarily reclaiming spectrum from broadcasters or penalizing the for not taking part in an auction; 5) that the FCC's incentive auctions should be structured with clear limitations on its authority to repack and co-locate signals, and an explicit mandate to protect broadcast contours and compensate broadcasters for relocating.

Smith advised the House panel that the language of the draft bill should be clarified to make sure the auctions were truly voluntary, which prompted Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) to comment on the apparent need to clarify voluntary and the suggestion, which he seemed to agree with, that Congress' "voluntary" sometimes needed quotation marks around it.

Dingell said he had asked the FCC for answers to all of the questions he had risen about border issues, and which he raised at an earlier hearing, and "hasn't gotten a satisfactory answer." Dingell then asked the former senator if, absent national security related concerns, if he had ever heard of a federal agency not answering a congressional request for information. Smith said that "in 12 years in the Senate they always answered."

An FCC source said that the staff had discussions on the Dingell request for info last week and the staff is working on the written response the source conceded, "We owe him."

In response to a question from another legislator, Smith said NAB was not seeking a mandate that all mobile phones carry a DTV tuner chip.

Smith said he supported incentive auctions that protect broadcasters as it promotes broadband, but that if the auctions do not to the former, "America will regret it."

The tenor of the hearing was civil and there was much talk of a bipartisan bill being in their sites, but Republicans on the committee remained divided over the issue of auctioning the D Block, which most Republicans and the wireless industry, favor, and allocating, which most Democrats and many public safety organizations, including the two witnesses at the hearing, just as strongly back.

The incentive auction bills--there are several drafts--would authorize the FCC to compensate broadcasters for giving up spectrum for re-auction for wireless broadband and would use some of the proceeds to pay for the creation and maintenance of an interoperable emergency communications network. In fact that network is driving much of the focus on the incentive auctions as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches.

San Jose Police Chief Christopher Moore said bluntly that auctioning would make first responders less safe. Rep Greg Walden (R-Ore., chair of the subcommittee commented that Moore had certainly made his position clear.

Walden said that the two sides were closer together than it might appear. They appeared to be far apart on issues like auction vs. allocation; unlicensed spectrum, which the draft would auction and unlicensed advocates say would shut innovators out of the market, as well as on how the public safety network would be overseen.

Several Republicans raised the issue of reducing the deficit as reason for auctioning the D Block. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) asked whether the FCC could afford to give away any spectrum, given the current economy.

But in the end all seemed to agree that they would have to work through some divisive issues and produce a compromise bill. "We get it," said Walden.