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FCC Chairman Genachowski and top lobbyist for broadcasters clash over need for a spectrum auction

April 12, 2011 | 11:26 am

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the top lobbyist for broadcasters disagreed over the need for a spectrum auction during back-to-back speeches at the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, a gathering that brings together top television executives and Washington lawmakers and lobbyists.

At issue was the FCC's desire to reclaim some of the airwaves, or spectrum, broadcasters use for next-generation cellphones and tablet devices such as Apple's iPad. The FCC and some telecommunications companies have argued that there is a shortage of spectrum on the horizon and a solution is for broadcasters to voluntarily auction off some of their spectrum.

Citing the rapid growth in the use of phones and tablets to view content, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told NAB attendees that there is a "spectrum crunch."

"We need to free up more spectrum for mobile broadband," he said. If no action is taken, he added, then the United States will fall behind the rest of the world.

"Other countries -– our global competitors -– are focused on mobile opportunities in a way that simply hasn’t been true in the past.... They are on our tail," Genachowski said.

But minutes after Genachowski finished speaking, NAB President Gordon Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon, fired back, saying the issue is "more investment in towers and infrastructure and receiving standards that maximize the use of the huge swaths of spectrum that wireless carriers have already been allocated."

Smith dismissed the idea of a spectrum shortage, arguing that outside of heavily populated cities such as New York and Los Angeles, spectrum, or the lack of it, is not an issue.

"Why should people in Kentucky have their local stations' signal potentially downgraded so urbanites in Manhattan can have a faster download of the app telling them where the nearest spa is located?" Smith cracked.

While Genachowski has stressed that he wants broadcasters to volunteer to auction spectrum, Smith and the industry don't believe him. Noting that broadcasters returned spectrum two years ago as part of their conversion to digital television, he said, "We already gave at the office."

In an interview with Smith at the convention, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves indicated his company is not going to volunteer to return any spectrum.

"It would hurt our business," he said.

One of the concerns of broadcasters is that spectrum auctions could make the airwaves more crowded and lead to their signals being degraded. 

"This endangers our digital future, and violates President Obama's promise to prevent a world of digital haves and have-nots.

Genachowski, in his remarks, said any such disruptions would be minimal.

-- Joe Flint

 

 

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