FCC’s Symons Emphasizes Spectrum Auction Mandate

WASHINGTON—The Federal Communication Commission’s incentive auction point man took to the airwaves Tuesday to discuss the auction process and emphasize that it was mandated by the president and crafted in large part by Congress—not the FCC.

“The structure of auction, and the incentive, was part of what Congress devised in the Spectrum Act to induce broadcasters to participate...” said Howard Symons, vice chair of the FCC’s Incentive Auction Task Force. “Congress felt that was the most effective way to get them to participate.”

Symons, along with Phil Goldstein, Editor of FierceWireless, and Mike Gravino, director of the LPTV Spectrum Rights Coalition, participated in a roundtable discussion about the auction on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, a public affairs talk radio program on WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C.

“The FCC has had 80 auctions,” Nnamdi said. “What is so special about this one?”

Symons said the incentive auction is set apart in that “broadcaster participation is totally voluntarily, so we don’t know how much spectrum we’ll have to sell. The whole notion of using market forces to determine how much we’re going to sell—and broadcasters being voluntary—is unique.”

Gravino mentioned that the Spectrum Act left out low-power TV licensees. Gravino’s group, the LPTV Spectrum Rights Coalition, has been the most vocal advocate for LPTV stations throughout the spectrum auction process.

Gravino said that there are “a couple of thousand” LPTVs between Channels 38 to 50 that will have to move without funding from Congress. Gravino said the FCC could have exercised greater discretion with LPTVs, but chose not to consider the impact of losing the diversity of voices represented by LPTV.

“I think we could have received repack funds and other accommodations,” Gravino said. “We have more multicultural and multigeneral owners” than protected licensees.

Symons responded that there are around 5,000 LPTV and translator licensees, and that the commission couldn’t have designed an auction to accommodate all of them.

“We did look at the impact on LPTVs,” Symons said. “But our directive is the statute. One of the statutory directives is how to spend the money,” i.e., auction proceeds used for expenses, including the $1.75 billion relocation fund for full-power and Class A broadcasters.

Nnamdi asked if any local stations could go off of the air. Gravino named WWTD-LD, Channel 49, which programs a Hispanic youth channel and a Chinese-language channel, among others. Of even more concern, he said, are the bigger broadcasters, like WHUT, the public broadcaster licensed to Howard University, or MHz Networks, which has two UHF independent stations in suburban Washington, D.C. PBS is very concerned, he said, because the underlying nonprofit wants to take the money and run.

Goldstein said that, “Yes, some TV stations will cease broadcasting, but they don’t have to; there are options… I think that this idea that we’re going to lose some TV stations and that’s a horrible thing is overblown.”

“So my constituency has $150,000 of expenses put on us so broadband providers can charge more,” Gravino shot back.

Symons said the auction was about “making more spectrum available for wireless broadband, because of the demand. The FCC has no intention of losing over-the-air broadcasting. What we’re trying to do, consistent with the mandate, is to get broadcasters to turn their spectrum in, which before this mandate, was not feasible.”

With regard to LPTV, he said, Congress felt it would stand outside the scope of the auction.

However, he said, “There will be low-power TV after the auction. The FCC is trying to help ease the transition… and [help them] stay on existing channels as long as possible. We can’t give them money. Only Congress can give them money.”

Symons said services wouldn’t go dark for “quite some time.” He said there was a three-year transition period for moving to a new channel or going dark. He also mentioned that TV licensees will be able to continue operating in the wireless spectrum until the new landlord fires up service.

“FCC is going to work with the low-power stations… possibly with channel sharing,” he said. “The FCC is proposing to make some very sophisticated software available to find channels after the auction.”

Nnamdi asked who would sell. Goldstein said it was hard to tell, particularly given the range of reactions to last week’s adoption of spectrum auction procedural rules that potentially could strand TV stations in wireless buffer spectrum. The National Association of Broadcasters said the rules “irresponsibly undercuts the ability of broadcasters to keep local communities safe and informed.” Preston Padden of the sellers’ group, Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition, said in a blog post to trust the auction designers and move on; that is, “petitions for reconsideration at this point would serve no purpose other than to enrich some lawyers.” Sinclair, ION, Tribune and others have indicated their fiduciary responsibility to consider participating.

“A lot of broadcasters have to look at this from a bottom-line perspective,” Goldstein said. “Will they get more money in this auction than from continuing to run the station? It’s fair to say that there are a number of broadcasters willing to participate. It’s just how many.”