Deborah D. McAdams / 07.13.2012 04:16PM
McAdams On: Keeping Up With the Congressians
Lawmakers are paper tigers on spectrum policy reform
SKEPTASIA:This is a finger-pointing screed about the
machinations of spectrum policy reform that starts with a contemplation of
reality TV. Perhaps you’ve noticed the striking similarity between C-SPAN and
“Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” I have, but only recently, because I don’t
have pay TV. I don’t see the point, notwithstanding my tragic lack of pop
culture acuity. And so it is, when holed up in a hotel room with pay TV,
watching the Kardashian phenomenon is like visiting another planet where the
beings do and say things that beggar belief.
Like members of Congress.
Both the Kardashians and Congressians are purported to portray “reality,” but
nowhere in Wikipedia can I find which version.
I was first exposed to the inner workings of Congressional hearings when I
covered TV issues on Capitol Hill. Say what you will about the late Sen. Ted
Stevens of Alaska, but he swept aside a gaggle of hacks to hold a door for me
when I was on a cane with a mangled foot. Reporters sure don’t do that for one
another. Stevens was good for questions, as we all know from his infamous
characterization of the Internet as a “series of tubes.” It was as fitting a
description as any I’d heard, yet the man was cyber-savaged by techno-bullies
who were not awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for risking their lives in
the service of the United States during World War II. What happened to him later at the hands of his
own colleagues is stupefying, and frankly, I hope they are ashamed of
Given the way they eat their own, I can kind of see how lawmakers might not
want to keep it real, but rather employ techniques that mimic reality*—as
several did this week during a House subcommittee hearing on oversight of the
Federal Communications Commission. The esteemed gentlefolk on Capitol Hill
enjoy calling the commissioners in for an occasional grilling because
finger-wagging at lesser bureaucrats makes for good C-SPAN, like marriages on
the planet, Kardash, only much, much more expensive.
This week’s episode of “Keeping Up With the Congressians” featured several
utterances of the word “inventory” in conjunction with the word, “spectrum,” as
in, “spectrum inventory.” The notion of doing a spectrum inventory appears to
be catching on in Congress now that the commission is well on the way to
auctioning off the TV airwaves, no questions asked.
Certain folks plagued with rational thinking considered a spectrum inventory a
vital first step in reassigning frequencies for wireless broadband. And by,
“first,” I mean, before Congress
authorized the FCC to let wireless providers take over the TV spectrum. However,
Congress needed mythical figures to balance its mythical budget, so it passed
spectrum auction authority—with the loophole that if not enough TV frequencies were
volunteered to cover the cost of relocating broadcasters, no auction would be
Several lawmakers actually did call for a spectrum inventory before auction authority
was granted. After a year or so of hemming and hawing, FCC chief Julius
Genachowski casually said the commission already had an inventory and didn’t
need to do another. Whaaaa? Where was it, then? On his old iPhone? Nope, not
there. In his pocket? No. How about behind your ear… We don’t know, because it
never saw the light of day.
Now, Mr. Genachowski is what’s known as a “public servant” whose position is
arguably the equivalent of the Attorney General for the First Amendment. The
FCC holds powerful sway over the information that does and does not reach every
home in America. As such, you would think that Mr. Genachowski would
demonstrate a modicum of respect for free speech by doing everything in his
power to make all aspects of spectrum policy reform available to the public he
serves. Instead, his actions suggest he is either a condescending pedant, or just
another self-serving opportunist.
Personally, I would like to think he is neither, but he’s not given me much to
run with—and I doubt he gives a hoot.
Genachowski is used to playing hardball in the business world with Barry
Diller, whom I’ve been told can be a good one for scathing belittlement. We know what
Diller’s up to in his dotage, (Sarcasma
runs amuck today…) so it should come as no surprise that one of his
protégés is outmaneuvering the people who are supposed to tell him what to do.
It wasn’t rocket science to simply wait out Congress. The law-making body would have auctioned
off its grandmother to pass a budget bill. What’s a few hundred TV stations
going dark so Verizon and AT&T can do nothing with the spectrum for the
next 10 years? A small price to pay for continuing to provide unemployment
benefits for millions of jobless voters in an election year.
The chairman also was pressed during this week’s hearing for the post-auction,
channel-repacking model that many now believe was a manifestation of mixing
pixie dust with Red Bull. A preliminary version of this Allotment Optimization
Model was described two years ago in an FCC white paper, and has since vanished
like Sasquatch. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) once again asked Genachowski about
the AOM, as he did last summer, when the chairman said this:
“Should Congress grant the commission the ability to conduct voluntary
incentive auctions, I commit to you that we will put the then-current—and
further refined—version of the AOM out for public comment before setting the
rules for the auction.”
Incentive auction authority was granted in February. It is now July. There have
been no reported sightings of the AOM in this or any other reality. All
Genachowski had to do to get spectrum auction authority was nothing at all,
thanks to Congress and its penchant for pretending to act.
Let the blame fall where it may, but all of these people will be enjoying plush
retirement when this fraud finally is perpetrated upon the American public. The
windfalls enjoyed by its architects will make Sen. Stevens’ home renovation look
like a rebate from Home Depot for 25 wood screws.