Broadcasters to FCC: What’s the Rush?

Auction should be done right, not right now

Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission’s ambitious 2014 timetable for holding a spectrum auction that will reshuffle the airwaves for TV stations and wireless providers.

The plan is the centerpiece of the FCC’s goal to free up more spectrum to meet the exploding consumer demand for mobile services.

Once Congress authorized the auction early last year, FCC chairman Julius Genachowksi—who was recently named the spectrum chairman—wasted no time taking steps to implement it, including setting a 2014 deadline for the auction. Essentially, Genachowksi is betting that all the complex engineering issues can be resolved spectrum-site unseen.

But broadcasters aren’t nearly as confident as Genachowski. “This shouldn’t be done in a rush,” said Gordon Smith, the CEO and president of the National Association of Broadcasters, which filed comments today with the FCC. “We’re not trying to stall. It’s more important to get it right than to get it done right now.”

There is a lot the FCC doesn’t know going into the auction. For one, it doesn’t know what chunks of spectrum TV broadcasters will voluntarily surrender. Moreover, the commission has yet to decide where it will place broadcasters and wireless companies into a space now occupied solely by 1,800 TV stations (called repacking).

The FCC and the U.S. also have to renegotiate treaties and agreements with Canada and Mexico to accommodate TV stations in markets near the border, such as Detroit.

As many as 500 TV stations could be moving from their current channel positions, four to five times more than were moved during the conversion to digital TV just six years ago.

“When you sit down with this stuff, it’s really hard. And when I see engineers confused, then I know it’s serious,” said Rick Kaplan, the NAB’s evp of strategic planning, who most recently served as the chief of the FCC’s wireless bureau.

In addition to its own comments, the NAB, in a rare alignment with five wireless companies (including AT&T and Verizon), also submitted to the FCC an alternate plan for organizing the airwaves between wireless services and broadcasters.

“The FCC’s [proposed] plan was unworkable,” said Kaplan. “We worked hard to find areas of commonality with the wireless industry. This is a huge moment.”