Skip to main content

NAB president goes to work in Washington

After Gordon Smith lost his Senate reelection bid to Jeff Merkley in 2008, he was restricted for two years from lobbying members of Congress. But now that the two years is up, the former Republican senator and current NAB president is free to lobby his former colleagues. Most of his time in Washington, D.C., was spent on the Senate’s Energy and Commerce Committee, where he was chairman of a technology task force. It was there he learned how Washington worked from the inside.

Smith is preparing to tell members of Congress about the dangers he sees from an administration pushing broadband reform. He warns that the federal government’s plan to bolster wireless networks could end up turning off broadcast signals for hundreds of TV stations around the country.

The administration is promising to give broadcasters a cut of the take from auctions of their spectrum. The plan has widespread support, from the president and the FCC to many of the nation’s largest technology firms, but Smith is hesitant.

“We don’t think this is an either-or debate, and we aren’t saying we are against voluntary auctions,” Smith told The Washington Post. “But we want to hold harmless those who don’t want to participate.”

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-WV, has introduced a bill that would pave the way for the government’s plan. But many political observers think it will be a fight to get it through. Smith has plans to blanket Capitol Hill and old friends on the committee with his message.

“My mother always said, ‘The best way to ruin a story is to tell the other side,’” he told the newspaper.

The power of a simple message, he said, could be boiled down to success in elections.

“Where do most people view campaign ads? Over free television,” he said. “Want to get elected? You’ll need TV … I placed an Internet ad when I last ran, and about 30 people clicked on it.”

Smith’s demeanor can be deceptive.

“With impeccable senatorial hair, Smith speaks plainly and has smiling eyes, even when he’s telling you you’re wrong,” the Post wrote. He’s “working” senators to ensure that broadcasters who want to auction airwaves get their fair due. They don’t want to be forced to sell, and they don’t want their channels repackaged and moved to less-desirable spectrum.

Even with all the posturing by Smith and the NAB, no one knows what the individual TV station owners will do if the time comes to auction their spectrum. Some observers wonder whether Smith is playing a game of poker, trying to get the government to ante up more money for broadcasters in auction.

Anticipating a spectrum battle ahead, the NAB hired Smith, as a veteran of Capitol Hill who could make sure their greatest assets weren’t taken away or sold at unfavorable terms.

“The devil is in the details,” David Barrett, president of Hearst Television and a board member of the NAB, told the Post.

Smith’s discussions could easily get drowned out by wireless and technology companies that argue that the government has to pick between old media and new, multibillion-dollar technologies. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the nation watches over-the-air TV these days.

President Barack Obama has promised to bring high-speed wireless Internet access to 98 percent of all homes, but for that, he needs broadcast spectrum. The administration sees expansion of broadband as an economic imperative for future growth. Schools will use e-books to learn better, the president said, and doctors will use handheld devices to instantly send X-rays to specialists around the world.

Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) President Gary Shapiro has chided broadcasters for “squatting” on airwaves that could be put to better use. Steve Largent, president of the wireless trade group CTIA, calls wireless broadband “the great equalizer.” The broadcasters, they say, are blocking the path to progress.

Smith clearly has his work cut out for him.