FCC's Genachowski won’t shield broadcast spectrum from market forces

In his CES keynote last weekend, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said opening up spectrum now used by broadcasters and allowing “market forces” to use it for a variety of wireless services is the top item on the commission’s agenda this year.

“Keep in mind that while about 300MHz of prime spectrum is set aside for TV broadcasting across the country, the percentage of viewers who watch broadcasting over the air, that is, who use that spectrum to watch TV instead of watching broadcast programming through cable or satellite, has declined from 100 percent to under 10 percent,” Genachowski said, echoing an earlier CES keynote by Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

“Since the DTV transition, some broadcasters are moving to make effective use of the capabilities of DTV spectrum, but others are not,” the FCC chairman said. “Voluntary incentive auctions would not preclude digital multicasting or mobile TV; they would simply bring in the discipline of the market. Especially given the need for mobile broadband, how can we justify shielding broadcast spectrum from market forces?”

Genachowski said incentive auctions are “common sense” and will allow the current holders of spectrum to “receive a capital infusion and stay in the video business,” But he painted the spectrum issue in larger terms than just broadcasters.

“While American ingenuity and our appetite for wireless technology are limitless,” he said, “spectrum is not. The coming spectrum crunch threatens American leadership in mobile and the benefits it can deliver to our economy and our lives.”

After his prepared remarks, Genachowski was interviewed by the CEA’s Shapiro, who has publicly stated his agreement with the FCC on the need for spectrum reclamation. Shapiro, in his keynote, accused broadcasters of “squatting on our broadband future” by not relinquishing spectrum. The CEA has long argued that broadcasters have been underutilizing and overprotecting their spectrum allocations.

In a discussion with reporters after the speech, Genachowski was asked what the FCC would do if broadcasters refuse to voluntarily give back the spectrum. He deflected a straight answer, saying, “I think it will work. We’ve put together a proposal that I think will be appealing to the market.”

It was not a good week for the NAB at the CES. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said it was “noteworthy that broadcasters have already returned 108MHz of spectrum to the government, a position that makes us the only user of airwaves that has returned spectrum to the government. Simply put, broadcast television is far and away the most efficient user of spectrum because of a ‘one-to-many’ transmission system that is remarkably reliable in a communications era best known for inconsistent ‘one-to-one’ cell phone connections.”

It was perhaps no accident that last week the NAB launched a new on-air and online campaign promoting over-the-air broadcasting as an important player in the digital space.