LAS VEGAS -- Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski had a polite but tough message on Tuesday for broadcasters about his agency’s proposal to reclaim some of their spectrum through voluntary auctions: Delay will only increase the costs and difficulties for consumers and broadcasters.
“It is vital that we move forward quickly,” Genachowski said during a morning speech at the National Association of Broadcasters annual show. “We all know that in Washington, the tactic of choice is often delay. It’s an understandable tactic that’s been frequently employed on many issues. And, let’s be honest, it’s been deployed around spectrum in the past.”
But, he added, “if we wait until there’s a crisis to reallocate spectrum, we'll have waited too long – for consumers, for our global competitiveness, and I believe, for broadcasters.”
Genachowski dismissed many of the concerns raised by broadcasters about his proposal for incentive auctions, aimed at persuading broadcasters to voluntarily give up some of their spectrum in exchange for a share in the proceeds.
“I’ve heard the arguments that seek to undermine the idea of incentive auctions,” he said. “And while there are certainly legitimate issues to work through, I’m disappointed by arguments that are fundamentally distractions.”
On claims that the proposal would hurt rural areas to help urban ones, Genachowski said most rural areas don’t face a spectrum shortage and are unlikely to be affected by incentive auctions.
Still, he acknowledged that more work needs to be done to address concerns raised about how the auctions will affect those who do not plan on participating, and he pledged to minimize disruptions and reimburse broadcasters for channel changes and other associated costs.
He said no broadcaster will be forced to give up spectrum, but that they will not be able to completely opt out of the process, either. “Voluntary can’t mean undermining the potential effectiveness of an auction by giving every broadcaster a new and unprecedented right to keep their exact channel location,” he said.
NAB President Gordon Smith made clear that broadcasters are ready to fight proposals they believe will undermine their industry’s core business. “We’re in full battle mode to protect broadcasters from being forced to give up spectrum in any way that is involuntary,” the former senator from Oregon said in a separate speech following Genachowski’s remarks.
Smith said regulators and members of Congress should not lose sight of the importance of broadcasting. “Why should people in Kentucky, for example, have their local station’s signal potentially degraded so urbanites in Manhattan can have a faster download?” he asked.
After his speech, Smith told National Journal that while Genachowski’s words were “friendly and encouraging,” he did not answer questions about who has spectrum or how is it being used.
“We want an inventory,” he said.
When asked whether broadcasters will battle the proposal or work to improve it, Smith said, “We’re saying we want to be at the table. We can help. We don’t want to be hurt in the help.”
He and some broadcasters said they are still waiting for more details on how the non-volunteers will be impacted. Reflecting a view voiced by many broadcasters at this conference, Tribune Broadcasting Vice President Shaun Sheehan said he is “very reticent” about the proposal.
Sheehan added that he is concerned about what happens with the enabling legislation Congress must pass to authorize the auctions. He said Tribune’s 23 stations still have robust business, and he could not envision any of them participating in the incentive auctions if they are authorized by Congress.