Broadcasters are not undermining the spectrum auction

As my 8-year-old works to navigate the travails of making friends in second grade, one of his most unfortunate emerging strategies has been to do silly things to get his peers’ attention. He took that approach to a new level this week when he spent some quality time with the school principal after dumping chocolate milk out of the school bus window on a dare.

I was reminded of that incident when, in another second-grade moment, the Consumer Electronics Association's CEO Gary Shapiro dumped his chocolate milk out of the window with a silly and misguided missive in The Hill's Congress blog (“Broadcasters’ madness hurting the public”).

Mr. Shapiro’s innovative thesis is that NAB “implor[es] the federal government for all sorts of favors while completely ignoring what the public wants and needs.” As Exhibit A, he suggests that broadcasters have “done all [they] can to delay implementation of voluntary spectrum auctions,” and that “the NAB has dragged its feet since the law passed and is seemingly discouraging broadcasters from participating in the auction.” Mr. Shaprio’s Exhibit B is broadcasters’ suit against Aereo, an Internet service that takes free, over-the-air broadcasts and converts and repackages them and sells them to consumers for a fee.

At the outset, Mr. Shapiro’s high-level thesis is absurd. He conveniently ignores the incredible and life-saving coverage broadcasters recently provided in communities hit hard by severe weather events. I may be way off base here, but I think what the public “wants and needs” is information that helps them stay informed and stay safe. These are services radio and television broadcasters provide across the country on a regular basis, and they are unequaled.

In fact, if CEA really cared about the public interest, it would lean on its wireless carrier and device members to take the simple step of unlocking the FM chips already in their phones. Then, when the wireless alert system is activated to say “check your local media,” a consumer could simply hit a button and have instant access to a local radio station that provides critical information.

With respect to the voluntary broadcast spectrum incentive auction, Mr. Shapiro is completely out to lunch. His initial claim, that broadcasters are doing all they can to delay implementation of the auction, has zero basis in fact. Indeed, he does not, and cannot, point to a single instance where NAB has attempted to delay the auction.

NAB has been constructively engaged in the auction process at least as much as any other entity, and has consistently provided concrete solutions for every problem we have identified. We have faithfully lived up to our public statements that we will do what we can to give the voluntary incentive auction the best chance for success. At the same time, it is essential that the auction remains faithful to Congress’s intent of keeping it voluntary, and NAB will work to ensure that broadcasters who want to remain on the air and continue serving their communities can do so without any repercussions.

What Mr. Shapiro also overlooks is how NAB played a major facilitating role in what is likely to be a $10-$15 billion auction this year of AWS-3 spectrum. As the FCC scratched its head to figure out how to auction largely valueless unpaired spectrum to meet a Congressional mandate, NAB, along with the Department of Defense worked quickly to develop a sharing framework that enabled the FCC to pair that spectrum. NAB gained nothing from that endeavor. We simply recognized that there was a significant public good to be gained by sharing our spectrum with DoD, and found a way to make it happen. NAB has clearly done its part.

Mr. Shapiro’s second auction claim, namely that NAB is “seemingly” discouraging broadcasters from participating in the auction borders on libel. How are we “seemingly” doing this? Are we “actually” doing it or “seemingly”? I don’t even really understand his point, beyond its goal of attempting to poison the well with an irresponsible suggestion.

That comment is akin to us saying that because CEA vigorously opposed basic laws and regulations that made electronics accessible to disabled Americans, “CEA seemingly doesn’t care about Americans with disabilities.” Or that, “CEA’s members seemingly exploit children overseas for cheap labor.” Or that, because its members manufacture millions of shiny new objects that end up polluting our oceans and landfills every day, “CEA seemingly supports devastating the environment.”

I’m not saying these things are true, but hey, it may seem like they are.

The other nonsensical point in Mr. Shapiro’s piece is his attack on broadcasters for taking Aereo to court. His argument is that, because broadcasters are supposed to provide their content for free, broadcasters can’t and shouldn’t prevent someone else from taking that content and selling it for profit. That makes no sense and is wholly inconsistent with his own advocacy on behalf of his members. I am confident that his members would not support the notion that they should pour a ton of investment into new technologies only to have their competitors steal it and sell it as their own.

As Mr. Shapiro knows all too well, there are very good reasons why the law provides copyright and patent protection. Those protections are not merely there to coddle multi-national electronics manufacturers, but to protect the innovations of America’s broadcasters as well.

NAB has an unofficial internal rule that we only respond to Mr. Shapiro’s comments once for every three or four of his outbursts. This is because, like my second-grader, if you react to something an attention-seeker does, it encourages them to keep doing it. And perhaps this blog is the equivalent of laughing at my son’s milk-scapade. But given the importance of the issues discussed, and the forum in which Mr. Shapiro elected to express his views, we believe it makes sense to correct the record.

As I explained to my second-grader, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to get people’s attention. In my son’s case, getting attention from others is best done through his intelligence, thoughtfulness and appropriate sense of humor. In Mr. Shapiro’s case, it’s attempting to stick to the facts, and also taking a good, long look in the mirror before penning another piece in The Hill.

Kaplan is executive vice president of Strategic Planning for the National Association of Broadcasters, where he leads the organization's efforts related to spectrum and innovation policy. Prior to joining NAB, Kaplan worked for the Federal Communications Commission in various capacities, including as chief of staff to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, chief counsel to Chairman Julius Genachowski and chief of the Wireless Bureau.