Blueprint for 'Progressive' Media

Opening spectrum and closing de-regulations doors in store, says new policy briefing
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If you want to get a read on the telecom policy agenda in store for the media industry, it has been spelled out in a new 300,000-word policy briefing, appropriately titled: Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

That chapter on the FCC, written by Larry Irving, former telecom policy adviser in the Clinton administration, creates a far different path for the FCC than the one that has been traveled under the Bush administration. B&C got an early look at that chapter online; the volume will be ready for public consumption in January.

Irving advises the administration to “roll back” the FCC's loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, and then determine whether the loosening of existing ownership rules by previous Republican-led FCCs “has resulted in unacceptable concentration of ownership.”

The book is partly the handiwork of the Center for American Progress, whose president, John Podesta, is on a leave of absence to head up the Obama transition team. That team, among other things, will help decide who will be the new chairman of the FCC; it will also help choose a chief telecom adviser and fill a new technology-policy czar post promised by Obama. The team has already helped Obama choose Bill Richardson as Commerce Department secretary. Richardson will oversee that chief telecom adviser post, which is atop the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the agency overseeing the DTV-to-analog converter box subsidy program.


Some broadcasters have expressed concern that with policy input from Google executives like Sonal Shah, who is helping develop tech policy for Obama, the new administration may push toward an unregulated model of spectrum allocation that could threaten incumbents such as broadcasters.

Irving's FCC blueprint does nothing to assuage those concerns. He says, flatly, of the incumbents' fears that unlicensed devices in the white spaces between TV channels will interfere with DTV reception: “New, smarter radio technologies can and will solve that problem.” He also says that, more broadly, “We are shifting from a regulatory structure based on managing spectrum scarcity to a period of spectrum abundance driven by technological innovation.”

For some, that would seem to argue for less regulation of traditional media like TV and radio, since the rationale behind broadcast regulation is rooted in the concept of spectrum scarcity. But Irving, and the Obama administration, aren't going there.

One broadcast lobbyist suggests that nobody seems to realize the precarious state of the broadcast business: “People keep beating us up, but the game is over.” And he means that literally: “When the bowls start going to ESPN, you have to start to recognize that the economics of the free system are really threatened, but nobody seems to want to even engage on that.”

Among Irving's suggestions for the FCC in the administration's first 100 days is making sure that the 21 million people he says are analog-only viewers (a number 2½ times higher than Nielsen estimates) will not be left behind after the digital transition on Feb. 17, 2009. According to that blueprint, look for an Obama FCC to push for a DTV education campaign that emphasizes public safety spectrum as the rationale behind the transition and tries to prevent the “massive consumer frustration and dislocation” that could occur.

The Obama campaign has prided itself on being tech-savvy, and Irving says that if the converter box coupon program “runs aground” in the early days of the administration, “it will be difficult to convince the public of the broadcasting and consumer electronics industries that the new FCC and the new administration are competent when it comes to technology.” He adds that the blame will fall on the next FCC chairman as well: “Congress will have no patience with whoever is serving as chair of the FCC on Feb. 18, 2009.”

That DTV focus would be consistent with the rising level of criticism from House and Senate Democrats in the past several weeks. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) commented two weeks ago that the nation wasn't ready for DTV, saying that “there is no question the transition to DTV could have and should have been far better managed.” Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a member of the House Commerce Committee, says he expects there to be fuzzy reception and phones that “erupt” with complaints.

Irving's complaints about the FCC are not confined to the substance of issues like de-reg and DTV. He is also tough on FCC process, pointing to a Government Accountability Office investigation that concluded that the commission was “incapable of tracking complaints about telecommunication services and resolves only a fraction of them.” A reform of the FCC from an agency of separate regulatory “silos” like cable, broadcast and satellite to a more holistic approach is another proposal that has been advocated by Obama telecom policy surrogates.

Topping the list of more long-range concerns for the Obama administration will be a broadband rollout strategy that includes collecting pricing information from broadband networks. Irving argues that the FCC should expand its Internet open-access principles from four to six, expressly requiring nondiscrimination and disclosure of any traffic-management efforts, then enforce them.

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