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NBCU's Cotton: Spectrum Discussions Will Have To Take Place

NBC Executive VP and General Counsel Rick Cotton said Thursday that he doesn't want to see damage done to the over-the-air TV station model, but he also says the issue raised by the FCC about possibly reclaiming some broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband is "a set of discussions that are going to have to take place."

The same day that Cotton was being interviewed about the topic for C-SPAN's Communicators series, Qualcomm Chairman Paul Jacobs was talking up the need for more spectrum to investors in a fourth-quarter conference call.

"The availability of license spectrum remains an important issue as worldwide demand for mobile broadband applications and services continues to accelerate," he said. "We support the FCC’s efforts to increase the amount of licensed spectrum available for mobile broadband."

Asked about the potential of the FCC taking some of broadcasters spectrum and giving it to the wireless industry, Cotton said that was going to be "a matter of a good deal of discussion."

FCC broaband advisor Blair Levin has been talking to broadcasters and other stakeholders about the need for spectrum, including ways in which broadcasters might be able to give up some while maintaining a broadcast presence. That could include, for example, combining the Big Four network affiliates into the spectrum space now occupied by a single channel and attendant multicast, or potential multicast, streams.

Cotton said that it was "a reality" that viewers were accessing TV, broadcast and cable and satellite channels, over paid platforms (about 85% of TV station viewing is via cable or satellite), "so it is natural that there should be some discussion about the broadcast spectrum," he said. He called it "a set of discussions that are going to have to take place."

But central to those discussions, he suggested, was the recognition that "the network local affilate over-the-air broadcast system has served this country enormously well over a period of 60 or 70 years. I don't think anyone wants to see, frankly, damage done to that system," he added.

Cotton said there were two important interests in play. One is access to television by the 10% of homes still getting an over-the-air signal (One suggestion that has been floated is to subsidize lifeline multichannel video service for those viewers.) The other is "the challenge that the FCC faces in terms of wirelss spectrum."

Cotton touched on numerous topics in the interview, including network neutrality, piracy, profanity and the new FCC. He said the FCC got it right in the network neutrality rulemaking proposal when it said explicitly that networks had to be able to manage their networks to prevent piracy, but got it exactly wrong in defending its crackdown on fleeting profanities, which he argues is unconstitutional.

Cotton would not comment on the talks between Comcast and NBCU about a merger, saying he had "certainly read about it in the papers," but he did have some nice things to say about the newly reconstituted FCC.

He said early returns on the more open and transparent process the FCC vowed to put in place as it considers the multitude of issues on its plate were "enormously positive" and had not gone unnoticed by industry players making their case at the FCC.

He also pointed to putting piracy issues "squarely on the table" in the network neutrality proposal as an indication that the commission was trying to conduct careful policymaking that took into account and responded to the issues on the table.