The FCC recently released several items of interest, including its recommendations to the public for preparing for the hurricane season. Number four on the list included this gem: “Broadcasters are an important source of news during emergencies.” The commission also released a nearly 500-page document detailing its rules on the upcoming spectrum incentive auctions.
How are these two commission actions related? Well, as we all know, the FCC is the primary agency in charge of protecting and managing RF spectrum and ensuring its optimum usage serves the “public interest.” The commission is under enormous pressure to strike a balance between the increasing need for spectrum for mobile wireless services and the importance of a free, robust broadcast service for the public. Unfortunately the commission’s spectrum auction rules clearly tip the balance in favor of the wireless industry.
Should we be surprised? Of course not. Broadcasters saw this coming, despite assurances from the chairman that the commission would comply with the congressional mandate to develop rules that would protect broadcasters’ coverage area. Unfortunately, time and again, the FCC rejected broadcasters’ input, an outcome that could result in higher costs for our industry and weakened coverage.
Take OET-69, for example. The FCC rejected the NAB’s request to ditch the flawed TVStudy methodology the commission proposes to determine coverage in favor of OET-69. NAB Spokesman Dennis Wharton alluded to the commission’s “bizarre commitment” to TVStudy. “The commission cannot even get the results of its new software to match those of the old software,” he said.
Another issue is the concept that broadcasters who don’t participate in the auctions be forced to cover the costs of relocation. “In pitching the auction, former Chairman [Julius] Genachowski made plain to Congress that the voluntary auction would not cost broadcasters who didn’t participate a penny,” Wharton said. “Congress then approved the auction and even provided a fund to cover all costs. The FCC should do everything in its power to limit repacking to that fund, and if it exceeds the fund, the new licensees should be responsible for any excess costs as they are in any other proceeding.”
While the rules don’t go far enough in protecting broadcasters’ interests, there are a few nuggets. The commission did take steps to protect funding for public broadcasters during repacking and opened the door for some stations to experiment with new transmission technologies.
In the end, though, it’s obvious that our industry is on its own if it wants to protect the future of free over-the-air broadcasting; it certainly cannot look to this FCC anymore. And neither can the public, who so often turn to broadcasters first when a crisis hits.