FCC Prepares for Next Battle Before Current Fight is Settled

Just as the FCC moved its most recent and controversial initiative to the public-comment phase, the agency began what will likely be an even more contentious process to reallocate the nation’s broadcast spectrum. With the goal of providing more spectrum for broadband internet services, the Commission proposed that television broadcasters relinquish a portion of the frequencies they control in exchange for a share of the proceeds the FCC would receive when it auctioned of the spectrum. Considering the expense broadcasters incurred preparing for this past summer’s digital television transition, the organizations were understandably resistant to the proposal. Further complicating the proposal, it is unclear how much spectrum the FCC is seeking.

The uncertainty surrounding future broadcast spectrum comes at a particularly crucial time in the development of the wireless broadband industry, further complicating the FCC’s job. According to network-equipment manufacturer Cisco, “consumer use of mobile services [will] increase at a compound rate of 129% annually between 2008 and 2013.” In contrast, Chairman Genachowski pointed out that it takes, on average, more than nine years to reclaim broadcast spectrum, indicating demand could outstrip supply long before the FCC has a chance to relicense the spectrum it hopes television broadcasters will forfeit. This uncertainty has the very real ability to hinder development of both advanced television and broadcast services, placing at risk the infrastructure that should support emerging technologies such as broadband wireless internet and mobile television. Recognizing the stakes involved in the FCC’s newest initiative, organizations and individuals on both sides of these issues are aligning and preparing themselves for what will likely be a protracted battle.

The alliances forming around the spectrum issue are not surprising given that most parties are industry groups representing one side of the debate or another. That such substantial constituencies have already declared their positions, however, will only hinder the FCC’s progress. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), for example, stated through its president that while the organization is open to ideas, it is unwilling to entertain proposals “that would mean giving up high-definition signals, multicast channels, or mobile DTV.” Considering the digital transition of this past summer, there is little to nothing left that the NAB and its members are willing to forego. Similarly, given the organization’s support for HD Radio, it is unlikely that the organization would support returning any portion of the radio broadcast spectrum. At the same time, President Obama made widespread broadband internet access a key aspect of his presidential campaign, and organizations such as CTIA – The Wireless Association are looking for the President to fulfill his campaign promise. With such powerful forces declaring their demands early in the process, the FCC’s options become increasingly limited, while at the same time, influential members of Congress state their intent to use every means in their power to protect their constituencies.

In the end, the victims in this struggle are likely to be innovative technologies and the small businesses that will likely devise them, not the major industry lobbies and the organizations those groups represent.

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