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Lawmakers Call Hearing on National Broadband Plan

WASHINGTON: Lawmakers will drill down for details about the National Broadband Plan this Thursday during a House Subcommittee hearing. All five FCC commissioners are scheduled to testify.

The House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet has scheduled the event for March 25 at 10 a.m., to ascertain more details about the plan, which was delivered to Congress by the FCC last week. The goal of the plan is to get 100 Mbps broadband to at least 100 million U.S. homes. One element of that plan is to relieve television broadcasters of around 20 channels worth of spectrum to reallocation for wireless broadband. While presented initially as a voluntary program, the plan makes clear the FCC intends to take the spectrum through channel repacking if necessary. (See “Broadcast-to-Broadband: Relinquishment and Repacking.”)

The backgrounder on the hearing notes that the FCC previously freed spectrum for a nationwide broadband network of sorts--to no avail.

“As part of the digital television transition, Congress allocated 24 MHz of spectrum--TV channels 63, 64, 68, and 69--to public safety, 12 of whichis currently allocated for voice communications, often referred to as ‘narrowband,’ and 10 for broadband services,” the memo reads.

“In addition to allocating 24 MHz to public safety, the DTV transition directed the FCC to auction additional spectrum in the 700 MHz band to commercial providers. In conjunction with that auction, the FCC attempted to create a nationwide interoperable broadband public safety network through an innovative public-private partnership that sought to pair additional spectrum--the 10 MHz ‘D Block,’ with the already-allocated public safety broadband spectrum. By allowing the commercial winner of the D Block access to an additional 10 MHz of public safety spectrum, the FCC hoped that the commercial licensee would have an incentive to fund and construct a nationwide interoperable broadband network to which public safety would have access.

“The 2008 auction of the D Block failed to attract a bidder and as a result the D Block and the 10 MHz allocated to public safety for broadband purposes remain unused. Several large cities have petitioned the FCC for permission to begin using the idle 10 MHz of public safety broadband spectrum.”

The five FCC commissioners are listed as witness. The 376-page National Broadband Plan was released last Tuesday without a vote of the commission. Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn expressed “serious concerns” about the broadcast spectrum allocation in the absence of rigorous analysis. She said the issue deserves scrutiny “given that the broadcast spectrum is the lone spectrum through which our nation’s public interest goals are effectuated.” She was also troubled about the impact on minority media ownership.

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said that the FCC should consider allowing TV stations to lease spectrum rather than just take it away.

“Focusing on this statutorily permissible and voluntary mechanism for leasing parts of the airwaves may be an easier path to accelerating deployment of advanced wireless services than more coercive means.” he said. -- Deborah D. McAdams