FCC plan to reclaim broadcast spectrum goes back a decade

The groundwork for reclaiming airwaves from television broadcasters was first drawn up more than a decade ago, when the FCC decided to make the Internet — not television — the country's dominant communications medium, the "New York Times" and other outlets revealed last week.

This bit of history, unknown to most broadcasters, was described last year in a speech at Columbia University (in New York) by Reed Hundt — the FCC chairman from 1993 to 1997 during the Clinton administration — delivered a decade ago. Hundt was later an advisor to Barack Obama on technology and communications issues during the 2008 presidential campaign and served on the Obama transition team.

Hundt spoke last year at Columbia in early March before the unveiling of the national broadband plan on March 16. "Next week, the U.S. will declare that broadcast, and broadcast in the form of cable, is no longer the common medium, and that the new common medium is broadband," Hundt said. "Which is a pretty big deal. That's probably not the way that the plan will actually read, so I thought it might be useful if I came and told you what it means, even if it doesn't exactly say that.

"Now, actually the choice to favor the Internet over broadcast as a common medium was initially made in a first draft form in 1994 to 1997 by some of the people who now are running the FCC," Hundt said, referring to his then general counsel and now FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski; and Blair Levin, then Hundt's chief of staff.

Genachowski has led the broadband effort for the Obama administration, while Levin, who is now a fellow at the Aspen Institute, was the primary author of the National Broadband Plan. The plan's goal is to provide 100 million American households with access to 100Mb/s Internet connectivity — as much as 20 times faster by 2020 than what is generally available today.

Hundt said that FCC policies in his tenure were aimed at benefiting Internet service providers over broadcasters. Genachowski has said that he is not trying to pick winners and losers.

The "New York Times" asked Genachowski to comment about his former boss's statement: "The voluntary incentive auctions are a market-based response to the mobile revolution," Genachowski said in a statement in response to a question about Hundt's remarks. "Our policy would accomplish two important goals: freeing up spectrum for mobile broadband and supporting a vibrant broadcasting industry."

Hundt is currently the CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital, a nonprofit advocacy coalition of businesses, investors and attorneys.

The FCC is on an active course to reclaim airwaves from "inefficient" users — specifically, television broadcasters — and auction them off to the highest bidder, sharing some of the proceeds with broadcasters that volunteer to give up their spectrum. Broadcasters may also be taxed on spectrum they choose to keep and continue to use.

Though many broadcasters and their lobbyists have argued against giving up the spectrum, stations owners who might auction their spectrum have been quiet. The government is gambling many of those broadcasters will choose to sell.