LAS VEGAS -- National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Gordon Smith cheered his group’s success on Monday in gaining key protections in spectrum legislation passed earlier this year by Congress. But he and other broadcasters said they have seen little evidence that TV station owners are flocking to sell off some of their frequencies to make way for their wireless broadband competitors.
“We can’t let down our guard. The American people need broadcasting and depend on what we do for our communities,” said Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon, during his opening speech at this year’s annual NAB show.
He pointed to NAB’s efforts to help shape legislation passed in February to free up more spectrum for wireless broadband use while ensuring that broadcasters didn't get shoved to low-quality channels. The law authorizes the Federal Communications Commission to conduct “incentive auctions” allowing broadcasters to offer bids detailing how much money they would take to give up some of their airwaves to wireless operators.
“Working in unity -- small- and large-market stations together with radio stations from across the country -- we averted a spectrum grab from misguided friends who would have you believe that broadcasting is yesterday’s technology. Ladies and gentleman, NAB is back,” Smith said.
But he noted that the industry would need to remain “vigilant” as the FCC implements the spectrum law. After his speech, Smith told reporters he’s anxious for more details from the FCC on the plan for relocating broadcasters in certain markets to create a block of spectrum that can be auctioned to wireless operators, a process known as “repacking.” Broadcasters want to ensure that stations that don’t give up their spectrum are not harmed.
When asked whether he’s heard of many broadcasters willing to participate in the incentive auctions, Smith and other broadcasters at this year’s NAB show say there is little interest so far. “I must say we’ve heard no hooves of a stampede,” Smith said. “I find our members excited about their business, their futures, and anxious to hold on to their spectrum.”
In his speech, Smith warned that wireless operators want even more spectrum in order to launch their own mobile-TV service, which he claimed "would most assuredly not be free." He added: "It seems to me, then, that the government could be in the position of picking the wireless industry as the winner and the consumer as the loser."
The wireless-industry group CTIA, however, shot back, arguing that consumers have so far shown little interest in broadcasters’ mobile-TV products but are eager for the latest offerings from the wireless industry.
“NAB has talked for mobile TV for years, usually when they’re explaining to policymakers why they should keep spectrum they didn’t pay for, but I don’t know any consumer who’s clamoring for it,” CTIA Vice President of Government Affairs Jot Carpenter said in a statement. “Conversely, folks seem to line up outside wireless stores when new wireless devices become available. Mr. Smith may not like it, but that’s the market speaking.”
Smith, meanwhile, also pledged to fight an aggressive push by cable and satellite operators and other pay-TV providers to get Congress and the FCC to overhaul “retransmission” rules, which require pay-TV providers to negotiate fees with broadcasters to use their programming. Cable providers and others argue that the current law is tilted in favor of broadcasters, who are using that power to withhold programming during negotiations to extract higher retransmission fees.
“The current system is fair and benefits its users,” Smith said.
Smith, however, did urge the radio and TV broadcasters to challenge their existing business models and do more to anticipate what consumers will want in the future. “We are harnessing the power of technology in Washington, D.C. But my question to you is, are you prepared to do the same in the marketplace?”
Among the ways broadcasters are trying to meet consumer demand now is by providing access to their programming anywhere, any time, he said. In addition to mobile TV, NAB also is pushing wireless makers to include FM chips in their cell phones and smartphones so users could listen to FM stations on those devices. Smith acknowledged that some wireless phones include the chip, but complained that most consumers don’t know it’s available and that wireless operators haven’t always activated the chip.