McAdams On: The Future Mobile Auction

2/26/2010 1:13:01 PM
The FCC is determined to reclaim all of the broadcast spectrum for broadband. Even with a bill pending for the full inventory of who and what is using the radio frequency bands, the FCC is going full-tilt after that occupied by TV stations. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski this week revealed a voluntary plan for broadcasters to turn over their spectrum in a “Future Mobile Auction.” While he stressed “voluntary,” he also failed to mention any other single source of spectrum. The question is, why?

As NBC chief Jeff Zucker reportedly pointed out during a House Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, broadcasters now occupy roughly 200 MHz of the spectrum. Even if the commission kills broadcast TV entirely, it needs another 300 MHz to reach its stated goal. Robert Seidel of CBS noted last week at the Hollywood Post Alliance Tech Retreat that, “One of the single largest users of spectrum is the federal government, so I’d say to them, ‘check your own house before you come to ours.’” Art Allison of the NAB said the DTV spectrum allocation model was flawed, and that only single-interference models were used for testing. Hence TV stations and networks continue to work out signal coverage and reception issues. (See “Post-transition Issues Persist”)

If ever there was an opportunity for conspiracy theory, this seems to be one. The government agency in charge of regulating broadcast television appears intent on killing it. The reality of most conspiracy theories, however, is they assign far too much cleverness on the part of perpetrators. The spectrum battle is just a political lobbying pig dressed up in public-interest lipstick. To hear FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski tell it, nationwide broadband will heal the world. It will put everyone to work. It will resolve the health-care schism, raise literacy levels and clean up the environment. No, really. Clean up the environment:

“With mobile broadband,” the chairman said Wednesday, “consumers and businesses can utilize Smart Grid-enabled information services. A whole new world of ‘energy apps’ can adjust lights, heating, and cooling from a smartphone or netbook, saving electricity, saving our environment, and saving money to boot.”

Wacky as it may be to the chairman, some of us turn off the lights before we leave the house. But that’s a teensy quibble. The bigger quibble is the disconnect between the chairman’s notions about how Americans live versus the reality. This is endemic in Washington, D.C. I remember once telling an FCC deputy that I didn’t have cable TV because I choose to delegate my meager disposable income elsewhere. I, a journalist, speaking to he, a D.C. attorney. He was incredulous that I thought $100 a month was too much to spend on TV.

Frankly, I think any amount of money per month is too much to spend on TV, which places me among around 20 million or so Americans who watch it over-the-air. That’s not enough to justify the use of spectrum for broadcasting, opponents say without so much as a nod to the anti-competitive nature of their position. Over-the-air television is the only alternative source of programming in many, many situations. Cable whines about satellite, but the reality is that the vast majority of Americans have a choice of exactly one cable provider--if that--and no DBS provider in some cases. Others, the two DBS providers. Where I live, it’s DirecTV or antenna TV. That’s it.

There are also people who don’t care about TV, just as there are people who don’t care about broadband. There are actual human beings in America who are not compelled to tweet their selection of sandwich meat. According to the FCC’s own survey, 17.7 million Americans think the Internet is a waste of time. I understand that’s heresy in smartphone-centric Washington, D.C., where the FCC just tweeted, “Broadband Plan Executive Director Blair on how the Plan will positively affect investment climate.”

Which answers the “why.” Wireless providers and by association, Wall Street, can get more out of monthly fee services than broadcasters can from free TV. And now broadcasters want to take free TV mobile, which would compete with the incrementally charged video services proffered by wireless providers. Therein is the crux of this entire effort to reallocate broadcast spectrum for broadband. That, and nothing else. Public-interest assertions are disingenuous posturing.

Americans deserve to be told the truth so that when they can’t find drinking water after the next big natural disaster, they know who to thank.