Genachowski tells subcommittee he aims to make recouping TV spectrum a ‘win-win’

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told the Congressional subcommittee overseeing the commission’s plan to bring 100Mb/s broadband to 100 million U.S. households by 2020 that his agency has developed a “win-win plan” that “should work” for mobile broadband, broadcasters and the public.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet March 25, all five members of the commission laid out their views on the agency’s National Broadband Plan and answered questions from lawmakers.

Subcommittee members questioned the commissioners about many specific issues raised in the sweeping FCC plan, ranging from unbundling access to broadband networks to the need for Congressional progress on a bill mandating an inventory of spectrum use.

Many questions addressed the plan’s proposal to reclaim 120MHz of spectrum currently used by broadcasters to transmit over-the-air DTV signals to meet anticipated demand for future wireless broadband Internet access.

Some, like Rep. Fred Upton, R-MI, expressed concern about the plan’s call to repack the broadcast spectrum. Doing so “could cause harm to consumers and broadcasters,” he said.

Others, such as Rep. John Dingell, D-MI, chairman emeritus of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, focused on the plan’s proposals to recoup spectrum from TV broadcasters on a voluntary basis. After the FCC chairman assured Dingell that specific proposals in the plan, such as allowing broadcasters to share the same 6MHz channel and incentive auctions, would be voluntary, Dingell asked Genachowski if other recommended steps to free 120MHz beyond these would be voluntary.

“Mr. Chairman, the National Broadband Plan states that if the FCC does not receive authorization to conduct incentive auctions or if the incentive auctions do not yield a significant amount of spectrum, the FCC should pursue other mechanisms. That’s a quote. Now are these other mechanisms going to be voluntary: yes or no?” Dingell asked.

“I think that language speaks for itself,” Genachowski replied.

Although Dingell tried again to get a yes or no answer, Genachowski responded by saying he was focused “on a near-term win-win that works for broadcasters” and would not speculate further.

Asked by Rep. Anna Eschoo, D-CA, about protecting public TV from involuntary reallocation of spectrum, the FCC chairman first said yes, but hastened to add, “I think for public TV, too, there is an opportunity here for a win-win.”

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-MO, asked Genachowski whether reallocating DTV spectrum would exacerbate the problem some over-the-air TV viewers have had receiving the same broadcasters following completion of the DTV transition in June 2009.

“The goal of the proceeding would be to respect the needs of viewers, especially those who still get their TV signal over the air,” Genachowski said. “The congestion issues we are concerned about are chiefly large market issues, and we can make substantial progress for the country if in a small number of large markets a small number of broadcasters share their spectrum. We can free up very significant amounts of spectrum for our mobile broadband economy, generating auction revenues, so I am confident there is a win-win here.

“I think the issues will be much less in rural areas because the congestion issues on the mobile broadband side are less intense.”

Still, before Genachowski can generate any “win-win” solution, Congress must move on the plan. “I would like to remind the witnesses today that the Congress is the sole progenitor of the commission’s authorities,” said Dingell in opening comments. “… I respectively suggest that the commission stay focused on the Congress’s simple goal of ensuring that broadband is accessible and affordable to all Americans rather than to seek to rehash old and unproductive policy debates and start counterproductive fights, which are quite unnecessary.”

Editor’s note: Streaming video of this four-hour hearing is available online.

Phil Kurz

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.