The FCC finally moves on reclaiming broadcast spectrum

For months, the issue of reclaiming broadcast spectrum has been debated. Now, the FCC is moving on the highly volatile issue.

However, the major question is whether Congress will pass the legislation to allow the FCC to act. At an FCC panel last week, Danny Sepulveda, an aide to Senate Communications subcommittee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, said that unless the FCC, the broadcasters and high-tech companies can agree on a plan, legislation handing the FCC power to hold incentive auctions isn’t going to happen.

Sepulveda also told the FCC panel that Congress wants to know exactly how much money they would have to pay broadcasters from the auctions. “If we are going to approve an incentive auction system and not know how much of the public’s money is going to be transferred to private sectors, that is going to be a real challenge for Congress,” Sepulveda said.

Sepulveda’s boss, Sen. Kerry, has co-sponsored legislation that would give the FCC the authority to hold an incentive auction to compensate broadcasters for giving up spectrum. “It will be important for broadcasters to understand what the parameters of the deal are. They are not jumping into this until they know ’what do I stand to make here,” Sepulveda said.

“What we are talking about here is the transfer of public funds for the freeing up of a public good to a private party,” he continued. “So, in order to achieve that end, you have to give broadcasters a fair amount of money. And by that I mean both fair in the sense of fair to them and fair in the sense of large.”

That said, Sepulveda said, when one talks of paying broadcasters with public funds, it raises a lot of other conversations. “How much are you actually investing in local news? How much are you actually investing in local programming, have we looked at the public interest obligations of broadcasters in a while?”

The FCC is now ramping up the urgency of the spectrum shortage. Among its goals will be to encourage the first broadcasters to move off their spectrum so the airwaves can used for wireless broadband services.

New information shows spectrum shortage issues are worse than ever. FCC data shows the spectrum deficit hitting 300MHz in the next five years. If this happens without action, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said the nation would have major challenges with the continued growth of mobile broadband technologies.

Last week. Jonathan Blake, a broadcast attorney, told the FCC panel that while the auction is billed as voluntary, the FCC’s plan to repack the spectrum and move broadcasters from UHF to VHF are not voluntary. Neither is a spectrum fee that has been proposed.

Blake said that there are technical issues that make moving to the VHF band unattractive to broadcasters. That, he said, will be a tough sell. On the other hand, he said, broadcasters are not necessarily opposed to incentive auctions and some might participate.

At its Nov. 30 public meeting, the commission will seek public comment on proposed new rules to fast track the spectrum deal — assuming Congress approves the plan. The idea is lose no time if Congress gives the go ahead.

The FCC can auction a broadcaster’s spectrum without congressional approval. But it wants to offer broadcasters willing to give up their spectrum a percentage of the auction proceeds. Congressional approval is needed to do that.

The FCC’s summit means broadcasters wishing to give up spectrum for a portion of the auction proceeds will soon have to make their own plans known. Until now, the broadcasters have shown solidarity in resisting the government’s plan.

The recent FCC analysis found national needs for spectrum more urgent than ever. “Subscriptions to mobile data services have increased by 40 percent in the latest six-month period of FCC reporting, and the average amount of data used per mobile device has increased by over four times during the last five quarters (Q1 2009 through Q2 2010),” the FCC said.

The commission’s broadband plan notes that Congress will have to change rules on the allocation of the broadcast spectrum to allow mobile broadband use and to allow broadcasters to do channel-sharing. While Congress works through the issues, the commission must find ways to improve DTV reception on the VHF band (Channels 2-13) in order that more broadcasters can be moved there from the UHF channels. UHF spectrum is better suited for broadband applications.

In trying to create a win-win for broadcasters, the FCC is considering expanding experimental licensing and accelerating opportunistic secondary markets for spectrum that would allow broadcasters to create new applications and revenue streams.