Washington

Q&A: Baker Seeks Spectrum

Meredith Attwell Baker, the newest Republican commissioner on the FCC talks openness and media ownership. 10/23/2009 05:00:00 PM Eastern

Meredith Attwell Baker, the newest Republican commissioner on the FCC, says that broadcasters' money is best spent on people and equipment, not paying someone to fill out more FCC forms. As the former acting head of the National Telecommunications & Information Association (NTIA), she has strong opinions about access to spectrum for wireless broadband, including the idea that more is needed and that it will have to come from commercial as well as government sources.

Baker weighed in on those and other issues in responses to e-mailed questions from B&C Washington Bureau Chief John Eggerton.

What concerns do you have with codifying and expanding the FCC's openness guidelines?

As policymakers, we all have an interest in ensuring an open Internet and the free flow of lawful content over the Internet. At the same time, I am concerned about any regulatory action that could lead to unintended harmful consequences, both here and abroad.

It's not clear to me that we have evidence of a problem to be addressed by the proposed net neutrality rules. If the commission imposes unwarranted regulatory burdens on broadband Internet service providers, no matter how well intentioned, it could have the unintended consequence of harming consumers by reducing broadband investment and deployment, decreasing innovation and restricting consumer choice.

Government should always proceed with caution so as to ensure the best outcome for consumers. Having said that, I support asking questions and gathering information to examine network management practices, and to build a robust data-centric record of the business and engineering issues to determine if there is any basis for concern.

What should the commission be doing to help broadcasters in one of the toughest markets ever, given their importance to the community?

Our economy is generally in pretty rough shape, and the broadcast industry has been particularly hard-hit by the recession. Between the substantial expenditures that television stations recently had to make for the DTV transition and the drop in television and radio advertising, particularly automotive, broadcasters are facing tighter budgets.

Before we impose additional regulation on the industry, we should do so only if it is absolutely necessary and, even then, regulate in a manner that will have the least possible unintended adverse consequences. For the same considerations, we should take a hard look at the paperwork obligations that we impose on licensees to make sure that our requirements are absolutely necessary and not duplicative. In these days of reduced station revenues and belt-tightening, I would much rather see a broadcaster spend its money on station employees or equipment that will enhance its local service, rather than pay a law clerk to fill out FCC forms of questionable utility.

The commission is performing a top-to-bottom review of how the agency can be reformed to make it more efficient for the people who work here, as well as more user-friendly for those that we regulate. One of the objectives of the effort is to review our licensing, comment and complaint filing systems [and try] to simplify them. Hopefully, this will reduce the dollar and staffing burdens on licensees to comply with our requirements.

Where do you stand on media ownership rules, or at least the need for some regulatory certainty?

The Communications Act requires the commission to review each of its media ownership rules—except for the national television cap, which is set by statute—every four years. The next such review will occur next year. In anticipation of that review, the commission issued a public notice announcing its intention to conduct a series of workshops, starting next month, to obtain the views of a broad range of experts about the appropriate scope and methodology in our review.

Chairman [Julius] Genachowski's intention, which I share, is to conduct a transparent and inclusive process that ultimately will result in rules that are based on hard data, will sustain judicial scrutiny, and will therefore provide certainty to the broadcast industry.

As acting head of the NTIA, you dealt with government spectrum issues. What are your thoughts about where to get new wireless spectrum for broadband?

I think we need to work on spectrum issues in three ways, more or less simultaneously. First, we have to promote innovation in wireless technologies. We have to make sure that we are using the best radio, antenna and other technologies possible to make the most of the spectrum we have. We also have to redouble our efforts to use spectrum efficiently. This means ensuring that applications and downloads are appropriately adapted for the mobile environment and mobile devices, and finding new ways to use unlicensed spectrum to relieve capacity constraints. And third, I think that we do need to find more spectrum. I do think we need to be looking at both commercial and government allocations when we do this. We are really facing a spectrum crisis, and we need to approach this issue differently than we have in the past.

How would you assess the current state of competitiveness in the video marketplace?

Based upon our most recent Video Competition Report, which was released last January, the answer to your question is that the level of competition varies from place to place. Almost all consumers have a choice between over-the-air broadcast service, cable service and at least two direct broadcast satellite providers. In some areas, consumers may also have access to video programming delivered by emerging technologies, such as fiber-to-the-home.

With last year’s transition of full-power television stations to digital-only operation, many stations are now offering additional multicast channels of programming, adding to consumer choice. In addition, viewing patterns are changing in that there is more and more video being made available online. Video is also being provided on advanced wireless devices, and broadcasters have developed a technical standard by which they can air their programming to such devices that was approved by the Advanced Television Systems Committee on Oct. 15.

The commission has issued a Supplemental Notice of Inquiry and received comments for its next Video Competition Report, and is currently analyzing the record. I look forward to working with the staff on its findings.

The FCC is about to launch an inquiry into kids TV rules. What do you think that should focus on?

As the mother of four stepdaughters, I can tell you from personal experience that the job of parenting in this era of exploding video technologies is more difficult than ever. While the proliferation of content over hundreds of channels, on-demand services and the Internet presents real opportunities and a variety of positive customized choices, the portability of the Internet and wireless devices that can be used far from the eyes of concerned parents makes things even more difficult.

We need to work with industry and all other interested parties to develop parental tools that work across all platforms, and to provide parents with content information so that they can decide what programming is appropriate for their children. In the wake of our August 2009 Report to Congress called for by the Child Safe Viewing Act, the commission will shortly issue a Notice of Inquiry to obtain certain information missing from that record. I urge your readers to file comments and work with us on this important effort.

As a commissioner in the minority, how do you view your role?

Someone once advised me that despite past reports of unrest at the commission, more than 95% of the matters that commissioners consider result in unanimous bipartisan support. I am committed to help get the decisions out, which are often critical to the business plans of the licensees and applicants before us.

Where our policy perspectives just cannot line up, I try to disagree without being disagreeable, so that we can constructively work together to make better communications policy that will serve the needs of all Americans.

What question should we have asked you, and what would your answer be?

I think that your readers might be interested to know my general regulatory philosophy. I start with the fundamental belief that consumers will benefit most from continued investment, innovation and competition. I believe that markets work better than government intervention and that competition regulates market behavior more efficiently than regulators can. When we adopt regulations to address anecdotes where there is no hard evidence that a problem exists, we get into dangerous waters. In other words, we shouldn’t try to solve a problem unless we know that one exists.

E-mail comments tojeggerton@reedbusiness.com.

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