Northern Border Legislators Urge Airwaves be Protected

WASHINGTON—A group of lawmakers from states along the border with Canada have urged a Congressional committee to ensure that any spectrum auctions not jeopardize the availability of free over the air television in their communities.

John Conyers (R-Mich.) voiced his disapproval of the FCC’s proposal to eliminate up to 120 MHz of television broadcast spectrum in auctions to telecoms in a Nov. 18 letter to Rep. Jeb Hensarling, (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. Conyers urged them to carefully consider the consequences of such a spectrum auction with regard to Michigan television stations and their viewing audiences. A similar letter was sent to the committee by a delegation of New York U.S. Representatives.

“Incentive auctions could have a severe impact on local Michigan TV broadcasters and Michigan economy,” Conyers said. “Up to 49 TV stations in Michigan may have to move to a new channel under such a proposal. A quarter of Michigan’s television stations might not have a channel, forcing them to share channels with another station or cease to exist.”

Conyers stated that between 10 and 15 percent of Michigan residents depend on off-air program delivery, and that the loss of broadcast service from spectrum auctions would affect between one and one-and-a-half million of the state’s residents, including a large number of Detroit viewers.

“The City of Detroit and surrounding areas have 500,000 residents who do not have cable or satellite and watch TV only over-the-air using antenna ‘rabbit ears,” Conyers said. “These people tend to be elderly, economically disadvantaged and minorities.”

He noted that Michigan was within a 250-mile “spectrum buffer zone” defined in a U.S.-Canadian treaty and excluding operation on some channels. This international agreement further limits the number of possible channels available for relocating U.S. stations.

Conyers stated that he was not opposed to a “truly voluntary incentive auction,” but felt that any such auction should contain “embedded protections” for both broadcasters and persons depending on over-the-air television service.

The New York letter to the Joint Select Committee co-chairs was signed by New York Representatives Carolyn Maloney, William Owens, Charles Rangel, Paul Tonko, Jerrold Nadler and Joseph Crowley, and echoed Conyers’ concerns about the impact that loss TV broadcast spectrum could have on their state’s television viewers:

“Unfortunately, the FCC’s current goal of reclaiming 20 TV channels (120 MHz of spectrum) for the voluntary auctions may have unintended negative consequences on the citizens of New York. Simply stated, there may be insufficient spectrum for a majority of the existing stations to operate in cities such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Watertown and Plattsburgh. It could also lead to reductions in the number of television stations available in New York City, Albany and Elmira.”

The group cited the importance of free access to television broadcasting in difficult economic times and also the importance of having unrestricted access to news and information during emergencies such as the recent flooding in New York. They stated that they were not totally opposed to voluntary incentive auctions, but did ask the Joint Committee to include “statutory provisions protecting the coverage areas of stations not participating in the voluntary auctions.”