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NAB's Smith: FCC Withholding Spectrum Reclamation Information

The National Association of Broadcasters took aim at the FCC's National Broadband Plan Monday in an effort to defend its spectrum turf.  The FCC countered that the association was employing scare tactics instead of working with it on a shared goal of preserving a strong over-the-air broadcasting system.

NAB President Gordon Smith said that NAB was providing some "facts" about the impact of repacking and moving channels since the FCC had not come out with its modeling for such impacts, even though NAB had been asking for it. He argued legislators should know those facts before voting on incentive auction legislation.

NAB has said it does not oppose incentive auctions, which would compensate broadcasters who want to give up spectrum for re-auctioning, but at the same time it has been making the point that broadcasters have a lot to live for, as it were, including mobile DTV and multicasting and even a one-to-many delivery model for broadband at peak loads times.

And it has also pointed out that repacking and moving stations to clear blocks of spectrum for wireless auction is by definition not voluntary and will be disruptive to the stations that remain behind. NAB Science and Technology VP Bruce Franca said that the FCC's plan would have a devastating impact on mobile DTV, a point seconded by NAB President Gordon Smith, who said that looking at the "facts and physics," mobile becomes "next to impossible." Franca also likened the plan to a card game in which some broadcasters were being dealt out.

At a press conference at NAB headquarters in Washington Monday, NAB President Gordon Smith and Franca outlined the potential impact of the plan on broadcasters and viewers in a power point headlined: "The Incredible Shrinking Free and Local TV Band." Among many other things, the FCC's National Broadband Plan proposed reclaiming 120 MHZ of spectrum to auction to wireless broadband. Broadcasters already gave up 108 MHZ in the DTV switch back in 2009.

Smith said that it will be difficult for the FCC to reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum without doing "tremendous damage" to broadcasting, and argued that the modeling that shows that has been "withheld" from broadcasters by the FCC. "We're not getting it and we are asking for it."

Smith said broadcasters want protection of its contours, costs of moving covered, and preservation of innovations like mobile DTV. "When you talk about a spectrum crisis," he said, "generating that is not data, but video," and "nothing is more efficient for that than broadcasters one-to-many architecture."  

In a PowerPoint presentation, NAB pointed to the markets that would lose at least 40% of their current TV stations, including in seven of the top 10 markets, to reclaim spectrum for wireless. Those seven are New York, L.A., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Detroit, Boston and Washington.

NAB also pointed out that between 800 and 1,200 stations will experience viewer disruption from a few hours to a few weeks while stations modify their facilities.

It drew a distinction between the impact of the DTV transition and this news, second, transition, making the point that this time around more stations would likely have to change channels, more full-power stations would have to give up their spectrum (about 175 stations in the upper band (52-69) were cleared out or moved to lower channel assignments in the DTV switch, and that while no station had to give up their channels entirely in the DTV switch, some 210 full powers in 61 markets would have to do so this time around.

Smith said the first DTV transition would be a "walk to Sunday school" compared to the current proposal.

The NAB pitch came as the House Communications Subcommittee was reportedly preparing to mark up its version of a spectrum auction bill that would create the network and give the FCC the authority to compensate broadcasters. The FCC is looking to get up to 120 MHz of spectrum from broadcasters to re-auction for wireless broadband, with some of the proceeds going to build an interoperable broadband emergency communications network.

Legislators are under some self-imposed, and otherwise-imposed pressure to pass an incentive auction bill before the upcoming tenth anniversary of 9/11, though that could be tough given that there remains a general political divide over whether to allocate spectrum in the so-called D block to the emergency network (as many Democrats including Sen. Jay Rockefeller, are championing) or auction it as current law requires (which many Republicans favor since, for open thing, it will mean more money for the treasury).

Why is NAB talking about the study now? Smith says that if the incentive auction legislation moves on regular order, NAB still has lots of opportunity to bring up these issues, but time will be more truncated if incentive auctions are part of debt ceiling legislation, as it currently may be.

He said the PowerPoint is being circulated on the Hill. A member has already filed a copy of a similar presentation.

Smith said that the incentive auctions could be part of a stand-alone bill or folded into the debt ceiling negotiations. It could be included for the billions it will raise for deficit reduction.

Smith said either way, the key was to get the policy right and pointed out that while the auctions would be a "footnote" in a debt ceiling bill, it was "life or death" for his industry.

"The NAB study sets up and knocks down a purely fictional straw man," said Consumer Electronics Association SVP, government affairs, MichaelPetricone. "The study presumes an unrealistic scenario in which every single existing TV station continues tooperate over-the-air. However in the event of incentive spectrum auctions, it is highly likely numerous stationswill capitalize on their spectrum assets by exiting the business or sharing resources. The NAB study implies thatmany broadcasters will be forced to auction their spectrum. However, current congressional legislation includesonly voluntary incentive auctions and reimbursement expenses for relocation costs."

"NAB's study misses the fact that an incentive auction will be market-driven and voluntary," said a spokesperson for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. "Our proposal will not shut down hundreds of stations; it will open up massive innovation and investment. It has twin benefits: it will help broadcasters interested in participating and unleash much needed spectrum -- a key ingredient to meeting the demands of the mobile revolution. Rather then engage in scare tactics, we urge NAB to work with us to achieve our shared legislative objectives to maintain a strong over-the-air broadcasting service."

 "I don't think it is scare tactics to ask for as much information as we can posssibly get about a proposal that could impact TV viewing for tens of milions of Americans," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton in response.

"NAB's study loses sight of the fact that the Commission has proposed a voluntary incentive auction, in which the outcome will be determined by willing sellers and willing buyers in the marketplace," said FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake in response to the NAB press conference. "While ‘NAB endorses truly voluntary spectrum auctions,' they say their ‘concern is that the FCC plan will morph into involuntary, because it is impossible for the FCC to meet spectrum reclamation goals without this becoming a government mandate.'

"That concern is unfounded. The Commission has made clear that we contemplate only voluntary contributions of spectrum by broadcasters. We have not proposed to recapture a prefixed amount of spectrum by whatever means necessary, but rather offer individual broadcasters the opportunity to receive a capital infusion by contributing some--or all-- of their spectrum to auction. To unfairly deny broadcasters these innovative options would not serve the future of broadcasting. And the incentive auction proposal has wide-ranging, bipartisan support."

House and Senate Republicans and Democrats have endorsed some form of incentive auction. The big bone of contention is over whether to auction some of the spectrum for an interoperable wireless broadband network or allocate it fo that purpose. Republicans point out that allocation would cost billions of potential defecit-reducing dollars.

"We welcome NAB's support for voluntary incentive auctions," said Lake. "Broadcasters' voluntary decisions will produce a win for contributing broadcasters, and for the country - by helping to meet the Nation's growing need for mobile broadband services, benefiting consumers, and spurring innovation and job creation. If Congress authorizes such auctions, we look forward to working with NAB and its members to implement the program in a way that will strengthen broadcasting and serve the Nation's vital interest in meeting the demand for wireless broadband services."