FCC's Levin: Broadband Plans Don't Threaten Future Of Broadcasting
FCC broadband advisor says broadcasters' business model doesn't support retaining all of spectrum all of the time
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 12/27/2009 10:00:00 PM
But he also says that broadcasters own actions and revenue streams do not support retaining all of their spectrum all of the time.
Levin's team has been working over the holidays as they bear down on a Feb. 17 deadline for getting the national broadband plan to Congress, a deadline Levin tells B&C they will meet, if not beat.
He says broadcasters need to be thinking about how to work with the FCC to help resolve the looming spectrum crisis, and calls "quite extraordinary" some broadcasters suggestion there is no looming crisis. Though he concedes the crisis is not yet upon us, he also suggests that the time to fix the roof is when the sun is still shining.
Levin says he and his team would rather have been throwing snowballs at the kids during the Washington area's record-breaking snowstorm, but they have been given a "gift" of working on something important for the country.
Following is an edited transcript of B&C's exclusive interview with Levin.
What is the current status of the broadband plan?
We've met the benchmarks we set out in July in terms of reporting to the commission as we developed this. We are in the process of writing. We'll be doing a lot of briefings. We've been briefing commissioner's offices at various times. We expect that in January that [briefing commissioners] will be a very significant part of what we are doing. We anticipate releasing the plan on or before the date Congress asked for it, which is Feb. 17.
So, you may beat the deadline?
It's always a possibility?
Will you give it first to the commissioners, and do thy have to vote on the report before it is released to Congress?
The law simply requires that the commission deliver a plan. The question of how the commissioners describe the plan is one that is best left to the commissioners. We are in conversations about that. This is a very unusual kind of assignment. It is not voting on a notice of proposed rulemaking, but it is not voting on a report in the same way as a number of reports to Congress past. So, it is an unusual thing and I think that everyone in good faith is trying to figure out what the best way of proceeding is.
Will the report have an online incarnation that can be updated, since we assume the plan is going to take years to accomplish?
The point is a very good one. The plan itself will be subject to many further proceedings and actions. We will do our best to deliver to the best of our ability a plan in mid-February. We are quite certain that in the course of implementing it, various stakeholders will find better ideas and new technologies and over time there will be a variety of different addendums to it.
But what we are really focused on is what we can say by mid-February to help chart a path to address the congressional mandate.
How long will it take to implement the plan?
I think there are certain aspects of it that can be done within the year. There are other aspects of it that are much more long-term. It really depends on the nature of the [issue].
For example, one of the things I know that is important to the people who read your magazine is spectrum. Nothing is going to happen right away regarding spectrum. There may be individual wireless companies that will have spectrum issues today. We think that is a company issue, not a national issue. We do think at least on the basis of the evidence we have seen, and I should note that I have not read the things that came in today [Dec. 22], that there is a distinct possibility of within five years of having what one would regard as a national problem.
That doesn't mean we need to act tomorrow, but it does mean we need to start thinking about how we act to prevent that problem. Another example of a problem that can't be fixed overnight is universal service.
As with other transitions from analog wireless to digital mobile voice, as well as, of course, the move from analog broadcast to digital television broadcast, the commission does have a role in making sure certain consumer interests are protected.
So, there are short-term, mid-term and long-term aspects of the plan.
On the spectrum reclamation issue, broadcasters are clearly afraid that the FCC is going to put them out of business. Some have even taken to calling it the Blair Witch Project.
First, as we have said everywhere we have been asked, though not always quoted in every place, that is not the intent.
What some broadcasters seem to be saying is that every broadcasters needs all six megahertz all the time or the business model falls apart. That is certainly not evident when you look at the actual behavior of broadcasters. It is certainly not evident when you look at various revenues streams.
But we don't really start from the point of view of saying, "What do we do to the broadcasters?" We start from the point of view of: "Is there really a spectrum crisis?" For broadcasters to argue, as some of them have done, that there is no evidence that there will be such a thing is really quite extraordinary.
One can't predict the future with 100% certainty, but it reminds me of certain comments that others were able to predict that others said, "Well, we don't know until we get there." Some things are predictable. If you look at certain spectrum usage and its impact, it is quite remarkable how Americans are moving to smart phones and what that does to spectrum.
So, we are trying to figure out a number of different solutions, not just with broadcast spectrum. But none of the plans that we have we think threatens the future of over-the-air broadcasting. Rather, we think it provides some options for those broadcasters who feel they don't need all the spectrum all the time.
You seemed to call out broadcasters on the retransmission consent issue in an exchange of letters with the National Association of Broadcasters?
One of the interesting things was that the broadcasters in a meeting said that one of the errors in my thinking was I did not understand the importance of having the entire six megahertz for the purpose of obtaining retransmission consent revenues.
And what I said was that, based on what I understood from my time on Wall Street, what really drove those revenues was not the quality of the picture that was over the air as much as the quality and the desirability of the content, which is why some networks are able to obtain such fees and other folks aren't.
But they were adamant that it was actually the quality of the picture. So, look, I thought that was an important point, and I wanted it reflected in the record.
Given his provocative writings about taking back broadcast spectrum, should broadcasters be afraid of the FCC's new distinguished scholar in residence, Stuart Benjamin?
Look, I think that if I were in the broadcasters' shoes, I would try to look at it from the FCC's institutional point of view, as opposed to the point of view of Stuart Benjamin or Blair Levin or anybody else.
Stuart is a very nice fellow, and he is a very distinguished scholar. But rather than his own personal point of view about these things--and taking particular quotes out of context doesn't tell you what his views are--what is important is that the FCC has an institutional obligation to insure that the public spectrum is used in a way that advances the public interest.
That is a very serious obligation. There were decisions made years ago, decades ago, and under certain circumstances. Some of those decisions stand today as being good decisions. Other decisions were great decisions at the time, but markets change, technologies change. It would have been inconceivable years ago that there would ever have been a spectrum crisis because the uses were so limited. But times change and you have to look at it seriously.
But it is not the personal points of view, but the institutional points of view, and the question is how we assure that there is a healthy broadband ecosystem for the country going forward.
If I were a broadcaster, I would be saying, "That is the question the FCC is trying to answer, and is there a way consistent with what we as an industry need that we can help the FCC do that?"
And that will come from plans and policies going forward, not from Stuart Benjamin?
What will you consider success for this plan? How will you measure it and will the plan include benchmarks to measure it?
There certainly will be recommendations of benchmarks. All of us who have been working so hard on this in the past 180 days will all have their own personal measurement. But the key thing is: Did we provide a path forward to meet the congressional objective?
How much longer will the broadband team stay together after Feb. 17.
Nobody leaves on Feb. 18. I think. We have been working with bureaus and others at the FCC as well as others in government to try to figure out not only what the right answers are but what the process is afterwards.
The work does not precisely end, but there is a certain job that will end. Whereas it is important to make sure those who will be implementing it get the full benefit of the intellectual capital that has been created, I expect that a number of people will be doing something else over the summer.
I don't answer any questions about myself except to say I'm a short-termer.
I'm told the broadband team was working over the holidays. Anything you want to say about them?
One of the great joys of this has been working with just the most extraordinary team--dedicated, hardworking.
I tend to get here pretty early in the morning and there are a bunch of folks here. I tend to leave pretty late at night and there are a bunch of folks here. We were all here during the snow day. Look, a lot of us would rather be throwing snowballs at our kids, but we all know that in some sense we have been given a gift to work on something very important to the country. We'd all like to make it the best possible thing we can.
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