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Dingell rebukes Genachowski, pledges to oppose auctions without protections for broadcasters

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), a powerful member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, rebuked FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a letter Aug. 16 for failing to respond to his detailed inquiry into the effects of voluntary incentive auctions and vowed to oppose granting the agency statutory authority to hold such auctions without “explicit and fair protections for broadcasters.”

“I am deeply disturbed that an agency created by Congress so often and so willfully fails in its duty to respond in a substantive manner to Congressional requests for information,” said Dingell in a statement on his website. “With respect to voluntary incentive auctions, it is imperative that members of Congress know what effect they will have on the broadcast industry and their constituents’ ability to receive free, over-the-air local programming.”

In mid-June, Dingell sent the FCC chairman a list of questions about incentive auctions, including how many stations would have to share a channel or go off the air, how many would have to move to a new channel and how many viewers would lose reception of channels. Dingell asked for a reply no later than June 27.

In his response to Dingell’s request dated Aug. 3, Genachowski did not respond to specific questions the congressman raised regarding the model the commission is developing to predict the outcome of incentive auctions. Voluntary incentive auctions are the mechanism the FCC has proposed to give television broadcasters a financial reward for relinquishing some or all of their spectrum.

On Aug. 3, the FCC chairman replied that the Allotment Optimization Model (AOM), an agency tool to be used in conducting the voluntary incentive auctions, “remains very much a work in progress.” Genachowski added that he was “deeply concerned that disclosure of predecisional information would potentially damage the commission’s deliberative process, as well as result in needless public confusion about the status of the Commission’s work on the voluntary incentive auction concept.”

In his Aug. 16 letter to Genachowski, Dingell called the chairman’s insistence that Congress give the agency authority to conduct voluntary incentive auctions before it releases to the public the effects of its Allotment Optimization Model “troubling.”

“By keeping this information from Congress — which, as I have so often reminded you, is the sole progenitor of your agency’s authorities — you force me to conclude that you in fact are concealing from Congress the true nature and consequences of future agency actions.”

Dingell reminded Genachowski that one of the reasons the agency was established was to give expert advice on telecommunications policy to members of Congress and said he has a responsibility to his constituents to understand how they will be affected by policy decision.

“Your unwillingness to respond substantively to my most recent letter constitutes by extension a grave disservice to them,” the letter said. Dingell added that he has read about other members of Congress having difficulty getting information from Genachowski. “One wonders if perhaps members of Congress would have an easier time getting information from the Commission by filing Freedom of Information Act requests.”

Copies of all three letters are available online.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.