Las Vegas -- Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell says he doesn't think that incentive auctions will yield as much spectrum for wireless broadband providers than even some of the lower estimates.
"I'm less optimistic than the [FCC's] National Broadband Plan, which talked about 120 megahertz. It ended up they forgot about Canada and Mexico. Oops," McDowell said during a panel discussion with fellow FCC member Mignon Clyburn at the National Association of Broadcasters annual show. "So they pared that to 80 megahertz. But I ask 80 megahertz where?"
He added that it will be difficult to reach even 80 megahertz given that each television broadcaster only has 6 megahertz to give up. "Broadcaster by broadcaster, that's got to be a lot of broadcasters leaving the market," McDowell said.
The problem is compounded by the Canada-Mexico issue McDowell jokingly referred to that relates to language included in the spectrum legislation, which authorized the incentive auctions. Broadcasters and some lawmakers voiced concern that some U.S. viewers, particularly in bigger areas along the Mexican and Canadian borders like Detroit, could lose access to over the-air television following the "repacking process" to free up a swath of spectrum to auction.
In response, Congress included language in the spectrum legislation that requires the United States to negotiate with Canada and Mexico before they can reclaim spectrum affecting those areas. Given the difficulty of such a process, the language could take a significant chunk of spectrum off the table, some broadcasters say.
Meanwhile, McDowell and Clyburn appeared at odds over a proposal the FCC may vote on at the end of the month requiring broadcasters to post online data about political ads. While they are currently required to make such data available on paper at their stations, broadcasters are resisting having to post the rates they are charging political candidates online, saying it could pose competitive challenges. McDowell was sympathetic to this concern. He said that if broadcasters are required to make such information easily available online for all to see, prices could go up "because they're all gonna know" what each other is charging.
"I think there is an opportunity to have an accommodation where we can have transparency without the unintended consequences," McDowell said.
Marci Burdick, senior vice president of Schurz Communications, said FCC officials so far have resisted a compromise offered by broadcasters that would require TV stations to only post who bought political ads and how much they spent.
Clyburn noted the importance of improving transparency in political ad spending but stressed she was still open to discussion on the issue.