Taking on updating the nation’s communications laws, last revised in 1996, is a gargantuan undertaking, one that has drawn bipartisan support in Congress, at least on the broad strokes. Topping the list of issues that have broadcasters nervous are a major update of the Communications Act and FCC actions, including next year’s incentive auction.
GOP Congressional staffers took plenty of shots at the FCC in an NAB panel Monday morning on the biggest issues in Congress facing TV broadcasters: the update to the nation’s communications laws, FCC process reform and the upcoming broadcast incentive auction.
The issues are pivotal for broadcasters, who are facing FCC and Congressional actions that could forever change the landscape of their business. It’s hard not to overhear broadcasters buzz about both issues in the halls of the Las Vegas convention center.
Taking on updating the nation’s communications laws, last updated in 1996, is a gargantuan undertaking, one that has drawn bipartisan support in Congress, at least on the broad strokes.
After soliciting comments and putting out a series of white papers on every aspect of the laws, GOP leadership on the House Energy And Commerce Committee decided it would be best to begin the updates with FCC process reform, a well-worn path for the committee and particularly former broadcaster, subcommittee communications and technology chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who has authored an FCC process reform bill.
The committee has already held one hearing this year on FCC reauthorization and plans a series of hearings in the coming months.
“If you start updating the Communications Act, you start with Title I [which authorized the FCC],” said Dave Redl, majority chief counsel for the House Energy And Commerce Committee.
While Democrats agree the laws need updating, beyond that, “there isn’t a lot of agreement about the details,” said Margaret McCarthy, who is part of the senior staff for energy and commerce ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.)
GOP leadership is particularly focused on putting more transparency into the FCC’s procedures and making sure the agency sticks to its statutory obligations.
“We’re still waiting for the commission’s quadrennial review of media ownership rules,” Redl said. “This is an issue we’re very concerned about. The FCC simply isn’t a place [where] you know how quickly, or if at all, it will answer concerns. The FCC isn’t a bad place, it’s just time for it to get a little more transparent and a little more predictable,” Redl added.
McCarthy came to the FCC’s defense. “There’s a lot of good work the FCC has done, perhaps prompted by congressional oversight,” she said, adding that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler launched an initiative at the beginning of his chairmanship to improve FCC procedures. “We’re pleased with the track record he’s had,” she added.
For now, video issues remain on the back burner. “We’ll continue to look at video issues, but the contours haven’t been decided,” Redl said.
Both sides of the aisle sought to reassure very nervous broadcasters in the audience that they were watching after station interests in the broadcast incentive auction, currently planned for early 2016.
“Congress did want to preserve a role for local broadcasters and we want to make sure that the consumer piece doesn’t get overlooked,” said McCarthy.
Broadcasters, who have never participated in a reverse auction, are understandably nervous about a host of issues surrounding the auction, from the resulting spectrum repacking to how much money is left for the move to another part of the spectrum.
Redl said it was important for the FCC to “clear out the question marks for broadcasters as fast as they can.”
GOP leaders are also firm in their commitment that there should be no set-aside spectrum in the auction for smaller wireless companies, something T-Mobile has been advocating.
“Any time you are depressing competition, that’s a problem for my bosses, so set-asides are a concern for us,” said Redl.
Although the law set aside $1.75 billion for broadcasters to move to be repacked in a smaller chunk of the airwaves, they are worried the amount may not cover be enough, leaving broadcasters to pick up the tab. If broadcaster worries persist, it could become an impediment to a successful auction, a priority for both sides of the aisle.
“That dollar came from Congress and it was a compromise,” McCarthy said. “The Congressional Budget Office said it would cost $1 billion. We’ll be working with the FCC to make sure those dollars work,” she added.
Whatever the solution, Redl said broadcasters shouldn’t be punished. “We’ll continue to push the FCC to find a solution. Whether Congress has something to say about the ultimate number will depend on what the FCC says in the short term,” he added.
Another auction issue is the unlicensed use of TV white spaces, an issue that came up in a recent communications and technology subcommittee hearing. Both Democrats and Republicans agree it’s important to clear up a database that the NAB pointed out in a recent study is fraught with problems.
“We were given assurances that work is being done by the FCC to fix it. You can expect follow up from Capitol Hill,” Redl said.