Chairman says broadcasters can’t refuse channel repacking

During an NAB address Tuesday morning, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the term “voluntary” in the government’s proposed spectrum auctions does not mean broadcast stations will have the right to refuse to have their channels repacked.

“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. This would not only be unprecedented, it would give any one broadcaster veto power over the success of the auction — and be neither good policy for the country, nor fair to the other participants,” Genachowski told broadcasters during his NAB address.

However, Genachowski said broadcasters will be fully compensated for costs of any channel changes, and moves from UHF to VHF should be voluntary. “Voluntary means not only that no broadcaster will be forced to offer up spectrum for auction,” he said. “It means that those who do choose to participate will know exactly what the deal is before relinquishing any rights.”

He noted that disruption to consumers — and to broadcast brands — will be minimized because the DTV transition has allowed broadcasters to move radio frequencies while keeping their virtual channels the same.

Genachowski noted that some broadcasters have argued that incentive auctions would stop mobile DTV, but disputed that notion. “The current standard and commission rules permit it, and indeed encourage experimentation and the development of mobile DTV business models,” he said. “Even if 120MHz of the 294MHz allocated for broadcasting were freed up as a result of an incentive auction, a healthy and robust broadcast system would remain, and nothing would change the terms of use of a 6MHz channel, including mobile DTV.”

Disputing another notion among broadcasters that there is an over abundance of spectrum in the United States today, Genachowski said in one year alone more than 55 million mobile computing tablets have been sold, placing a demand on spectrum 120 times that of smart phones.

“This growing demand is not going away,” he said. “The result is a spectrum crunch. No matter what happens in the marketplace, the only thing that can address the growing overall demand for mobile is increasing the overall supply of spectrum and the efficiency of its use.”

The FCC chairman noted that more than 2000 companies with over $1 trillion in revenue have called on Congress “to swiftly pass legislation allowing the FCC to conduct voluntary incentive auctions” and calling these auctions “critical to furthering innovation and growing jobs in America.”

He also noted that last week 112 of the nation’s leading economists endorsed voluntary incentive auctions. The economists who signed this letter include Nobel Prize winners, former members of both Republican and Democratic administrations, and FCC Chief Economists who served under chairmen of both parties.

“It’s become clear that this is an idea whose time has come,” Genachowski declared.

Genachowski praised some broadcasters who are actively involved in the production of local news, but noted that of the 28 commercial over-the-air stations in the New York market, only six invest in news coverage of any kind. In Los Angeles, it’s eight out of 23.

“Some stations choose not to invest in this type of content, and some simply can’t — it just doesn’t make economic sense for them,” he said. “But it does affect any objective of broadcast markets in view of national spectrum needs.”

On the issue of retransmission, Genachowski had little to say. He suggested that the FCC was looking at whether there were regulatory barriers that can be reduced or eliminated “to support the efforts broadcasters are making to reach the audience that’s increasingly relying on broadband-connected computers, smart phones and tablets.”