All of the Federal Communications Commission members agreed Tuesday that the No. 1 priority for the digital transition was not DTV converter boxes nor the education program, but creating an interoperable broadband public-safety network with spectrum being reclaimed from that transition.
That came in response to prompting from legislators in a House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee hearing on the recently completed 700-megahertz spectrum auction -- recently completed, that is, except for a block of spectrum, the so-called D block, which is supposed to be used to help create that network via a public-private partnership.
The auction, which raised about $19 billion, got mixed reviews in the hearing. Some legislators, primarily Republicans, argued that the auction was not a success because the $19 billion it raised was far less than it would have raised had the commission not put open-access conditions on a large swath of spectrum, saying that some estimates ran as high as $30 billion.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin countered that the auction's goals were not just about getting as much money as possible, but also about the public-interest goals of opening the spectrum to outside devices and applications, which, he added, prompted others, like AT&T and Sprint Nextel, to begin opening their networks.
Fellow Republican commissioner Robert McDowell, who opposed the open-access conditions, took issue with that characterization. He said the AT&Ts and Sprints of the world were already opening up their networks without the prod from the FCC, and the open-access conditions made the spectrum less desirable and drove some big players to bid up other spectrum the FCC had set aside for smaller players.
Ranking House Commerce Committee Republican Joe Barton of Texas agreed with McDowell. He and more than one-dozen colleagues wrote Martin last spring to warn that the access conditions could make the spectrum less desirable. “I told you so," he said Tuesday.
What all sides agreed on was that the failure of the D block public-safety spectrum to sell was a problem that needed to be corrected.
Martin and the other commissioners said they were still committed to a public-private partnership to operate the resulting public-safety network, but that was only the second-best option. The first, they said, would be for Congress to set aside money to pay for it. Absent that, trying to get a private company to make the capital investment to help underwrite it was the way to go.
Among the suggestions for finding a bidder in a reauction of the public-safety spectrum -- which Martin said probably can't happen until the fourth quarter at the earliest -- is lowering the reserve price from $1.3 billion, providing bidders with a clearer sense of their obligations and even forgetting about the public-private partnership, auctioning the spectrum and using the proceeds to fund a network.
Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) used the opportunity of the hearing to raise the issue of a just-released Government Accountability Office report he commissioned on minority and women ownership of the media. That report said those groups were still underrepresented, and Markey suggested that the recent wireless auction did not help to correct the situation, pointing to a lack of ownership diversity in the winning bidders.
Former Subcommittee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) used the hearing as an opportunity to suggest that the FCC focus on public safety and the DTV transition, rather than "get sidetracked" by other issues, like attempting to push a la carte pricing or price controls on TV programming -- both issues Martin has talked up in various venues. "Stay focused on the task at hand," Upton added.