Walden: TV spectrum grab is an “abomination”


The 12/15/09 House Communications Subcommittee hearing on communications spectrum was a largely technical affair and did not get much into specifics such as taking television spectrum and reallocating it for wireless broadband. One who did mention it was Greg Walden (R-OR), who called an essay on policy to starve television off the air “an abomination” and “offensive.”

NAB’s Gordon Smith was a key witness, and defended over-the-air television. He called it a unique service, the only one providing local news, weather and sports, not to mention local emergency service, AMBER alerts and other services. He also noted that television serves many people over a relatively narrow bandwidth, getting to people far more efficiently than wireless broadband, which consumes more bandwidth each time an additional consumer is served.

Smith noted that the DTV conversion was only recently completed, with $2B in government investment and over $10B from broadcasters. He noted that the fruits are just now being realized, and should not be nipped in the bud by a sudden reallocation of spectrum.

Two bills were under consideration, H.R. 3125, the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act, and H.R. 3019, the Spectrum Relocation Improvement Act of 2009. Most of those present seemed willing to wait for the inventory to be conducted by the NTIA and FCC under H.R. 3125 before making any specific recommendations – for now, most were content to comment on how that inventory needed to be conducted.

CTIA’s Steve Largent outlined his constituents’ rapidly-growing need for spectrum, but made no overt moves toward OTA television’s currently-allocated swath.

One of the few members of Congress who mentioned television during opening remarks was Energy and Commerce Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (D-MI), but he did so only in passing and then did not touch on it at all when it was his turn to query the witnesses.

Walden was one of the few to spend time on the issue. He mentioned the recently unearthed essay from new FCC strategic planner Stuart Benjamin (see story here: http://www.rbr.com/tv-cable/19272.html) and said of its half-jesting call for costly regulatory burdens on OTA TV to hasten its demise, “I find it an abomination, I find it offensive.” He said he would follow up with the FCC to find out just why somebody of that opinion is being employed. Smith agreed that pursuing such a policy would be tantamount to throwing away the billions just recently invested in DTV. Smith noted that Benjamin seemed to attach no value to television’s local service.

One of Largent’s concerns was that any reallocation plans that result from the spectrum inventory be put into effect in a more efficient manner than they have been in the past – he said the history of such changes indicates that it is typically a ten year process. He said his industry doesn’t have ten years.

RBR-TVBR observation: The NAB has to be happy with this hearing. It was not open season on broadcast television at all. The most significant exchange on the topic was in stiff defense of broadcast television. Television is not a specific focus of either bill.

Largent’s ten year lament also confirms our own thought that this is far too complicated a matter for truly swift resolution.

But this is just one hearing on one day by one subcommittee, and there will be a lot of other hearings in a lot of other venues. The FCC’s examination of OTA television spectrum is certainly more aggressive than anything we heard during this session, and it’s ongoing.