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'Washington Face-Off’ session reveals flaws in incentive auction proposal

An April 13 session at the 2010 NAB Show revealed a potentially serious crack in the FCC’s strategy for implementing a portion of its National Broadband Plan calling for recouping 120MHz of spectrum currently used by broadcasters to meet anticipated future demand for wireless broadband service.

Only hours after FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski delivered his NAB keynote in which he identified “incentive auctions” as the mechanism that would entice enough TV broadcasters to voluntarily give up the sought-after spectrum, fellow Democrat FCC Commissioner Michael Copps questioned the assumption.

“Congress is looking to raise money, and it’s probably not to give it to broadcasters or anyone else so they can pay down the deficit a little bit so they can all be budget balancers,” Copps said.

The point is not trivial. If Congress were to use all spectrum auction proceeds to pay down the debt, it is difficult to see how Genachowski’s vision of a voluntary auction could produce the “multilevel win” for broadcasting, mobile broadband, consumer electronics and technology companies he described during his keynote that would free up 120MHz of TV spectrum.

Copps made his comments during “The Washington Face-Off.” Other participants included FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell-Baker and National Telecommunications and Information Administration Deputy Administrator and Deputy Assistant Secretary Anna Gomez. NAB CEO and President Gordon Smith moderated the session.

Clyburn, who was sworn in as an FCC commissioner in August 2009, also questioned whether the incentive auction envisioned in the broadband plan would have the unintended consequence of further diminishing media ownership by women and minorities. “There is a possibility that they might be the first entities to sell, further shrinking, to me, an incredibly, embarrassingly small market stake,” she said. While Clyburn said she was not yet taking a position but rather examining both sides of the matter, she described a less diverse marketplace as not being “something I would be comfortable with.”

During the session, Smith asked the panelists if they thought free, over-the-air TV broadcasting would remain a viable communications medium in the future. The commissioners agreed TV will continue to occupy an important position on the media landscape. The rise of broadband shouldn’t diminish the vitality of TV broadcasting, Attwell-Baker said.

“I think it is a false choice when they say, ‘Do you want a world-class broadcasting system or world-class broadband?’ I think the answer is both,” Attwell-Baker said.

The panelists also discussed their thoughts on retransmission consent, the role of broadcasting in the United States and the future of journalism.

Editor’s note: Look for Part II, which addresses other issues raised during the panel, in next week’s “NAB Update.”

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.