Washington

Preserve Thyself

1/16/2010 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Last week, the FCC's lead staffer on the spectrum reclamation issue weighed in on the proposal the commission is preparing as part of the national broadband plan.

What broadcasters have seen—and we would argue rightly so—as a possible spectrum grab that would leave them beached and gasping for air is being billed by the FCC as more of a “spectrum tug,” one that would leave broadcasters with a range of options. Those include keeping all of their spectrum if they'd like, to use for mobile DTV and HD and multicast channels.

Phil Bellaria, director of scenario planning for the FCC's broadband team, talked to B&C last week with the mission of setting the record straight, as he perceived it, in the wake of broadcasters' efforts to stem what they see as a tide toward leaving them with crippled service at best. Bellaria said that the FCC was not out to kneecap the industry, and went ever further with a comment we want to highlight here and hold the FCC to in the months and years to come: “We have a clear objective as part of the broadband plan to preserve free over-the-air television.”

To paraphrase Guinevere from Camelot: “We applaud your noble goals, now let us see if you achieve them.”

There was a caveat in the upbeat talk from the FCC about understanding the value of HD programming over the air and giving broadcasters flexibility to choose from a number of scenarios, including broadcasting a primary signal on a remaining station's multicast channel that would qualify for must-carry.

This position was based on an assumption of some baseline number of broadcasters who would take the money and run voluntarily. If not, the FCC will have to put the “mandatory option” on the table, in Bellaria's words.

This gets back to the whole “voluntary” idea. According to Bellaria, the commission has made it clear that this is not a forced march, as it were, so why are broadcasters still manning the battlements?

For one thing, because when government asks a regulated industry to volunteer, there is always the implicit stick to go with the soft-spoken call to reason together—in this instance to find a flexible solution to what the FCC says is a looming crisis.

For another, the wireless industry, computer companies and some consumer electronics types have been pushing the FCC to take the spectrum, with the broadband plan as powerful cover. Online seems to be the place where we are all going to live and work, get our checkups, control our thermostats, renew our driver's licenses and hold our graduation ceremonies, as well as get our entertainment and news and public affairs. If so, the call for freeing up more real estate to house all that could drown out arguments against a rush to judgment on where all that spectrum should be found, including from government users.

Oh, and then there was that bit about naming a spectrum-reclamation provocateur, Duke law professor Stuart Benjamin, as scholar-in-residence. If picking someone to ponder spectrum who had already suggested regulating broadcasters out of existence to get their bandwidth is not waving a red flag in front of a wounded bull, please e-mail us.

The FCC is starting to make noises like it isn't planning to carry the water of the wireless industry, whose derision for broadcasting is palpable. Some broadcasters are sounding like the FCC may get it.

Our advice to broadcasters: Trust but verify.

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