Broadcasters' concerns about spectrum reclamation were
echoed by a bipartisan duo at the FCC's public meeting announcing its national
broadband plan March 16, with Democrat Mignon Clyburn warning that "a plan
that would further decimate the prospects for women and minority owners is
In public statements at the meeting, FCC Commissioner Robert
McDowell detailed a number of ways to free up more spectrum short of moving
broadcasters off the band. Those included 1) more efficient use of spectrum by
both wireless broadcasters and users of the so-called "white spaces"
between TV channels; 2) bringing more underused or unused government spectrum
to auction; and 3) encouraging broadcasters to lease some of their spectrum,
which they are already allowed to do under FCC rules. "Focusing on this statutorily permissible
and voluntary mechanism for leasing parts of the airwaves may be an easier path
to accelerating deployment of advanced wireless services than more coercive
means," he suggested.
The FCC is looking to encourage, or some would argue coerce,
broadcasters into giving up between a third and a half of their remaining
spectrum holdings for wireless broadband. While the plan is billed as voluntary, it
might also include an involuntary re-packing of broadcasters now using channels
2-51 to channels 2-45 to get back 36 MHz of space at the outset.
Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn sounded a more direct
warning about taking broadcast spectrum without first understanding the impact
of that move on news and information and minority and smaller-market
While Clyburn agreed that if broadcasters didn't need some
spectrum, it could be used for other purposes, she was not shy about her
reservations regarding the FCC's proposal.
"While the plan acknowledges the current public
interest mandates and goals of broadcast spectrum, it does not contain a
rigorous analysis of the practical implications of its proposed actions on the
public interest," she said. "This is a serious concern given that the
broadcast spectrum is the lone spectrum through which our nation's public
interest goals are effectuated."
"Likewise, the plan does not study the impact that a
spectrum sell-off would have on women and minority-owned broadcast television
stations. It is certainly possible, if not likely, that the stations most
amenable to accept the buyout would be those few owners. It is no mystery how
poorly these groups are represented among the media ownership ranks...In my view,
we may be doing the country a disservice if our actions left Americans relying
on over-the-air television with only the major networks at the expense of
smaller stations serving niche audiences who rely on them for their news and
The FCC's top broadband advisor, Blair Levin, has said that
he did not expect the top five or six stations doing news and public affairs
programming in larger markets would be giving up spectrum, but that there were
other, smaller, stations that would be. His point was that the FCC could free
up spectrum while still preserving the public interest value of broadcasting.
But Clyburn was looking for more assurances that
broadcasting was not being overlooked in a rush to load the latest app. "I
am very concerned about sacrificing an essential service to our communities in
favor of new apps that have nothing to do with ensuring that we can have
meaningful access to the news and information critical to our daily
lives," she said. "It is unclear at this point whether the Internet
can currently replace these trusted sources."