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Spectrum PushComes to Shove?

‘We're going to get screwed.” That succinct spectrum-related observation came from a state broadcaster association executive in town two weeks ago during the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual State Leadership Conference.

Asked by B&C whether the FCC’s retrans rulemaking proposal might be an opportunity for the commission to pressure broadcasters to go along with its spectrum reclamation plans, the exec, speaking on background, said yes, and offered that it would remain sufficiently vague, leaving room for that veiled threat.

An FCC source dismissed suggestions the commission would use retrans or other upcoming proceedings as leverage in the spectrum push.

Other broadcast industry members, who asked not to be identified, agreed they are concerned about regulatory overreach in service of the FCC’s stated goal of promoting a broadband future.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has repeatedly said he is not out to drive broadcasters out of business, a point echoed last week by commission executive Blair Levin, who oversaw the national broadband plan that proposed repurposing broadcast spectrum for wireless broadband. “The FCC is actually not out to destroy any industry,” Levin told B&C. “What we were trying to do in the plan was to make sure that America had ubiquitous, diverse, constantly improving broadband.”

Levin argues that if broadcasters would migrate their transmission standard to the more bandwidth-efficient MPEG-4, they might be able to serve the government’s and their own interests simultaneously. Broadcasters counter that would mean everybody would have to get a new TV set, a “daunting” challenge so soon after the DTV switch.

NAB President Gordon Smith has suggested broadcasters are prepared to fight for their spectrum, telling a C-SPAN audience two weeks ago that broadcasters “would not be rolled.”

Broadcasters are still smarting from a speech by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt just prior to the release of the broadband plan in which Hundt said the FCC’s plan all along had been to supplant broadcasting with broadband as the national communications medium. Genachowski was a Hundt aide back in the mid-1990s, a fact broadcasters also note.

Against this backdrop, FCC and administration moves have upped industry anxiety. Broadcasters, fighting to recover from a down economy, now feel they are also fi ghting for their lives, particularly with an FCC plan to move broadcasters that don’t give up spectrum to what they see as more cramped quarters in the less DTV-friendly VHF band.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama pushed a National Wireless Plan, which includes a push to get spectrum. Then, in his FCC budget, the president included spectrum fee authority as a policy tool rather than the revenue-raiser it had once been considered.

Add the recent suggestion that the FCC could get rid of programming exclusivity rules in its retransmission consent proposal—which would in turn weaken broadcasters’ hand in retrans negotiation— and the threat/promise in its as-yet undecided media ownership rule review, and broadcasters see the FCC showing its hand as more of a fist waved in their faces.

An FCC official speaking on background said the suggestion the commission would use those ideas to pressure broadcasters not to fight spectrum reclamation proposals is specious. “FCC Chairman Genachowski continues to promote and believe in a healthy broadcasting industry while finding ways, like the proposed incentive spectrum auctions, to address the nation’s looming spectrum crunch in a way that is good for broadcasters, consumers and commercial wireless carriers of mobile broadband alike,” the official stated. “It’s our responsibility to address this and take action in the near future.”

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