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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 12/27/2009 10:00:00 PM Eastern

FCC broadband advisor Blair Levin tells B&C that he does not think any of the commission's plans for
spectrum reclamation "threatens the future of over-the-air broadcasting."

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?

Correct.

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.

And you?

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.

September
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