AT&T to FCC: Give the TV Stations What They Want

The cell-phone carrier wants the agency to cave rather than delay an auction of valuable airwaves.

A view of cellular communication towers on March 6, 2014 in Emeryville, California. The U.S. Labor Department is asking mobile phone providers to increase safety training for crews who perform work on cell tower sites in the United States. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), more tower site workers died in 2013 than in the previous two years combined and four workers have died in the first weeks of 2014.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Aug. 22, 2014, 3:39 a.m.

TV sta­tions have found an un­likely ally in their leg­al fight with the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion: AT&T.

The TV broad­casters and cell-phone car­ri­ers are usu­ally at each oth­er’s throats as they each fight for ac­cess to as much of the pub­lic air­waves as pos­sible.

But in a blog post Wed­nes­day, AT&T said the FCC should cave (at least par­tially) to the broad­casters’ latest de­mands rather than risk delay­ing an auc­tion of air­wave li­censes. Joan Marsh, AT&T’s head of reg­u­lat­ory af­fairs, said she be­lieves the broad­casters are “will­ing to con­sider a reas­on­able com­prom­ise.”

“Com­prom­ise must con­tin­ue to be the hall­mark of the in­cent­ive auc­tion pro­ceed­ing,” she wrote, adding that in­dustry groups and the FCC have com­prom­ised on a range of is­sues re­lated to the up­com­ing auc­tion. “And we be­lieve that the is­sues raised by [the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Broad­casters] can sim­il­arly be re­solved—and re­solved quickly.”

Earli­er this week, the NAB sued over the FCC’s plan to buy back their broad­cast li­censes for auc­tion to the cell-phone in­dustry.

TV sta­tions don’t have to par­ti­cip­ate in the auc­tion, and the air­waves will mean faster smart­phone con­nec­tions for mil­lions of con­sumers. But the broad­casters claimed that the sta­tions that skip the auc­tion could reach few­er view­ers and could be forced to pay mil­lions of dol­lars to re­vamp their equip­ment to work on new chan­nels.

The group wants the FCC to re­work its rules but is not try­ing to stop the auc­tion en­tirely. The broad­casters are ur­ging the FCC to set aside an ad­di­tion­al $500 mil­lion to com­pensate the TV sta­tions for their ex­penses and to use a dif­fer­ent for­mula to en­sure that the sta­tions can reach the same num­ber of view­ers as be­fore the auc­tion.

An FCC spokes­per­son said the agency is “con­fid­ent” the plan com­plies with the law. 

But a pro­longed leg­al battle could force the agency to delay the auc­tion, which is sched­uled for next year. The cell-phone in­dustry has been clam­or­ing for more air­waves as soon as pos­sible, warn­ing that their net­works could soon be­come con­ges­ted due to skyrock­et­ing traffic.

In a note to in­vestors, Paul Gal­lant of Gug­gen­heim Part­ners said the law­suit could delay the auc­tion by six months to a year. That is, of course, un­less the FCC just gives the broad­casters what they want.

A broad­cast in­dustry of­fi­cial said it’s a “good sign” that AT&T has in­dic­ated it wants a com­prom­ise on the is­sue.

“So now the ques­tion is, will the FCC com­prom­ise?” the of­fi­cial said.

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