LAS VEGAS -- Broadcasters meeting here this week will have an overwhelming issue to wrestle with: spectrum.
Government and industry alike are clamoring for broadcasters to share a little of their spectrum to help make way for the wireless Internet boom. And the National Association of Broadcasters -- gathered for the groups's annual spring NAB Show -- is looking for ways to at least get a little mileage out of this.
The growing popularity of mobile wireless broadband devices is putting more pressure on regulators to find spectrum to meet to this demand. As fewer Americans rely on over-the-air broadcasts, regulators have called on broadcasters to voluntarily give up some of their allotted spectrum. In exchange, the FCC has floated a proposal, endorsed by the Obama administration, that it would auction off the spectrum broadcasters relinquish and give them a share of the proceeds.
“We do not oppose spectrum auctions, so long as they are voluntary and broadcasters who choose to remain in business are not penalized with new spectrum fees, forced into an inferior band, and prevented from adopting innovative services,” NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said by e-mail ahead of the meeting.
“We don’t buy into the notion that the future is either broadband or broadcast. There is a place for both broadband AND broadcast in tomorrow’s world,” Wharton said.
Among the most vocal supporters of such voluntary auctions is FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who is scheduled to speak on Tuesday morning at the NAB Show. In his prepared remarks for a White House meeting on spectrum last week, Genachowski described incentive auctions as the “single most important step” regulators can take to free up more spectrum.
NAB Show sessions include a Monday offering called “The Language of Spectrum for the Non-technical Operator,” which the promotional website describes as focused on helping “articulate why broadcasters are concerned with proposals to reclaim, repack and relocate their channels.” Another one called “The Air We Breathe,” according to the site, will discuss “the FCC’s latest plan to reallocate some TV spectrum, what Congress needs to do to make it happen, and how this monumental shift could impact the future of the American communications industry.”
The increasing scarcity of spectrum is not the only challenge broadcasters face. Cable, satellite, and other multichannel video-programming providers have been pushing the FCC to overhaul the process under which they negotiate fees for use of broadcasters' programming.
Broadcasters have been demanding higher rates, which has led to disputes with some cable providers and a few short-term blackouts of broadcast programming in some markets. In March, the FCC launched proceedings to begin overhauling the retransmission process despite NAB’s insistence that the current system is not broken.
“The FCC has noted numerous times that the retransmission consent process provides incentives for both parties to come to mutually beneficial arrangements, and despite the back-and-forth, over 99 percent of deals are completed without a disruption in service,” Wharton said.
And although broadcasters succeeded in killing an effort in the last Congress, they are still being pressured by the music industry to agree to pay musicians a performance fee for playing their music live on AM and FM radio stations.
This article appears in the April 11, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.