The FCC’s desire to auction TV spectrum to aid wireless broadband and generate revenue is now centered on a House-Senate effort to reduce the country’s budget deficit. Broadcasters, led by NAB, are concerned that the Super Committee version of the incentive auction will lack sufficient protections for those TV stations that choose not to participate in an auction. So, NAB and other broadcast lobbyists will be working hard over the next two months to make sure that whatever incentive auction provision emerges addresses the industry’s concerns.
Like a lot of Americans, broadcasters will be following the work of the House-Senate Super Committee that has been charged with coming up with $1.5 trillion deficit reduction legislation by Nov. 23.
But broadcasters will have a special interest in the 12-member panel since it will likely consider including a provision giving the FCC the authority to reallocate a large swath of TV spectrum to wireless broadband through a so-called incentive auction. The Super Committee is interested in the incentive auction since it promises to generate billions of dollars of badly needed revenue for the government.
Broadcasters worry that the Super Committee version of the incentive auction will lack sufficient protections for those TV stations that choose not to participate in the incentive auctions.
As a result, the NAB and other broadcast lobbyists will be working hard over the next two months to make sure that whatever incentive auction provision emerges addresses the industry’s concerns.
NAB President Gordon Smith likes the broadcasters’ chances of gaining some protections for stations. “I know from personal experience that few things would light up my switchboard more than messing with constituents’ television sets,” says the former Oregon senator.
The broadcast reps have a short window of opportunity to influence the Super Committee. They can make their case to the standing House and Senate committees until Oct. 14, by which date the committees must make their recommendations to the Super Committee. Thereafter, broadcasters must deal directly with the 12 members of the Super Committee.
After the Super Committee issues its package — again, its deadline is Nov. 23 — it can’t be changed. The relevant committee must approve it without amendments by Dec. 9. Then, the full House and Senate have until Dec. 23 to vote up or down on the bill.
“It is a little early to say exactly what our action plan will be,” says Smith. “But to the degree necessary, beyond the advocacy we are doing on the Hill, we are certainly prepared with a significant grassroots and airwaves campaign should that be necessary.
“I would like to do this face to face and make our case to members of the Super Committee, in the hopes that we can spare them all the rest that broadcasters can bring to bear, if necessary,” says Smith.
For broadcasters, the two keys on the Super Committee are Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.)
As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, Kerry is likely to make the case for inclusion of S. 911 or something like it in the Super Committee package.
Adopted in June by the Senate Commerce Committee, S. 911 is an incentive auction bill that contains some protections for TV stations that opt to keep their spectrum. The measure also covers any costs associated with moving broadcasters to new channels following the auction.
But broadcasters say that it stops short of giving them the protections they need.
They want the FCC to be given specific guidelines for dealing with interference issues and assurances that stations’ service areas will remain unaffected.
The broadcasters see Upton as their ally on the committee. With Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (D-Ore.), Upton is the co-author of draft legislation that is more generous with protections for broadcasters than S. 911.
“Fred Upton really understands the value of local broadcasters,’’says Karole White, president of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. “A lot of people will put weight on what he has to say.”
NAB has been feuding with the FCC over its proposal for reallocating up to 120 MHz of broadcast TV spectrum since the fall of 2009.
The reallocation mechanism is an incentive auction. The FCC believes that many broadcasters will voluntarily turn over their spectrum to the FCC for auction to wireless carriers if they can share in the proceeds from the auction.
Many may, but the FCC needs congressional authority to conduct such auctions.
The problem is that most broadcasters, including those who control the NAB, are not interested in giving up any of their spectrum and they are concerned that auctioning some spectrum and the subsequent channel reassignments of all stations — the so-called band repacking — will diminish their over-the-air service.
NAB has also argued that any incentive auction bill needs to include a sunset on the FCC’s authority to reallocate more broadcast spectrum; a provision preventing forced relocation to an inferior channel assignment or diminished service areas; reimbursement for expenses incurred due to repacking; and assurances that stations have enough spectrum to deliver full HDTV and provide new services like multicasting and mobile DTV.
“We are not saying stop the auctions. We are simply saying that if they are truly voluntary, don’t harm the non-volunteers in the repacking process that follows,” Smith says.
He also points out that the consequences of repacking are especially damaging to broadcasters with service areas bordering Canada. “If 120 MHz or even 84 MHz are surrendered, Detroit will lose all of its nine full-power stations. There will be no channel for them to go to. Other northern border cities such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Spokane and Seattle will lose a significant number of channels and will have no place to go unless there is a new agreement struck with the Canadian government.
“I would think that is enormously important as a policy matter worthy of the United States Congress. It ought to be a concern for every northern state member of Congress.”
An incentive auction proposal became entangled in the contentious debt ceiling debate this summer. But NAB launched a grassroots lobbying and TV ad campaign in July that derailed a plan offered by Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) that would have permitted incentive auctions without what broadcasters consider adequate protections.
The White House also continues to push its own incentive auction plan as part of its proposed jobs bill. It includes a $1 billion relocation fund to cover costs associated with moving TV stations to new channels following the auction, but it fails to offer any of the major protections NAB is seeking for those broadcasters who hold on to their spectrum.
And it includes provisions permitting the FCC to collect spectrum user fees. Although TV broadcasters would be exempt from those fees, NAB’s radio members and all other spectrum users would be subject to them.
NAB’s Smith isn’t too concerned about the jobs bill, however. If it wasn’t “dead on arrival,” he says, it was dead when the president revealed how the bill would be paid for.