Technology

Giving the FCC Some License

6/21/2010 12:01:00 AM Eastern

The FCC rather quietly released an important document last week.
While it rated neither a headline on the main page of the commission’s
Website, nor a mention in its Daily Digest of FCC notices,
news releases and texts, “Spectrum Analysis: Options for Broadcast
Spectrum” lays out the FCC’s plan for reclaiming 120 MHz of
spectrum from broadcasters for reallocation to wireless broadband.

The National Association of Broadcasters did
not weigh in immediately, saying it was studying
the document. It should do so carefully.

The commission provides a few encouraging
words about the continued value of over-the-air
TV, but those comments seem more like lip service
than endorsements. The document sends
some troubling signals. Perhaps a mixed message
is to be expected from an agency that has
approached numerous issues with processes that
leave plenty of wiggle room down the line. But
don’t look for the
FCC to do much wiggling
in its quest for
broadcast spectrum,
which Chairman Julius
Genachowski
has said is part of the
answer to a growing
crisis.

“Some stations
may realize that their
spectrum license
holds more value in
an auction than they
can achieve under
their current business
model and future
broadcast opportunities,”
says the FCC
in the document,
apparently having
already figured out
what those future
broadcast opportunities
may be. The
commission may be
correct, but its current
interests are served by finding reasons for
broadcasters to clear out.

Ironically, stations in the smallest markets, including
some that are financially strapped, will
not be eligible for the buyouts, the FCC suggests.
In that case, the agency should give those broadcasters
more room to create multi-platforms in
their markets.

Currently, the FCC does not allow duopolies
in those smaller markets, or combos between
TV stations and newspapers, but it could and
should correct that in its review of media ownership
rules. There may also be some support in
the document for broadcasters’ argument that
the FCC should take into account cable, satellite
and the Internet in that media ownership review
when it looks at how many diverse voices there
are in a marketplace.

The FCC concedes that point. In arguing
for being able to take back some spectrum in
congested major areas, the commission says,
“Consumers in these markets tend to have a
relatively large number of alternatives to view
television content—a median of 16 OTA [overthe-
air] full-power television stations, OTA
low-power stations
and digital multicast
channels, at least
three to four multichannel
video programming
distributors
[MVPDs], and a
growing amount of
broadband Internet
video content, increasingly
delivered
to the TV.”

The FCC argues in
the document that
broadcasters will be
able to do high-definition and give back
some spectrum. The
commission concedes,
however, that
it can’t do HD and
mobile DTV now,
though it suggests
technology may
solve that issue.
And it suggests that
questions remain
about mobile DTV’s business plan and competitive
future. Perhaps, but these are questions that
broadcasters need to answer rather than take the
FCC’s warning as a signal to retrench.

It is in the FCC’s interest now for some minimum
threshold of broadcasters in major markets
to second-guess their futures and give up some
flexibility.

One thing is clear: The FCC wants that broadcast
spectrum. Station owners will have to decide
whether the commission is offering them a new
business plan and a future, or using the lure of
easy money to get them to sell themselves, and
that future, short.

September
October