Snowe-Kerry adds support to contentious FCC recommendation

The congressional endorsement for incentive auctions comes after weeks of fighting over whether the policy will elbow broadcasters off the airwaves. 

In March, when the FCC released its decade-long, 360-page plan for boosting American Internet access, the recommendation to create incentive-based spectrum auctions flared up immediately. Broadcasters worried that the auction policies might include more sticks than carrots, forcing broadcasters to give up their space.

But the auction recommendation gained some momentum in June when President Obama endorsed the idea in an executive order about spectrum, while assuring the auctions would be voluntary. The broadcasters seemed to begin accepting these assurances.

“We’re convinced that America can have both the finest broadband and broadcasting system in the world without jeopardizing the future of free and local TV service to tens of millions of viewers,” National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) communications executive vice president Dennis Wharton said in June.

On Monday, NAB President Gordon Smith wrote to the White House to say broadcasters have "no quarrel" with incentive auctions that are truly voluntary.

But Smith added there are still flaws in the plan and that the recommendation's targets seem arbitrary.

Smith's words are only one sign that the provision may still have a long slog ahead. Congressional aides said on Tuesday that they believe the broadcasters have toned down their rhetoric, but that the auctions could remain a tough fight. 

The provision’s “prominence” in the National Broadband Plan helped convince the senators to “at least include it in the initial draft,” even if it could faces hard prospects ahead, one aide said.

Michael Calabrese, director of the spectrum policy program at the New America Foundation, also predicted the auctions will remain “contentious.”

“Broadcasters know [the auction process] cannot be completely voluntary,” he said. “You cannot have an auction unless channels are cleared, so even if 75 percent of the local stations took the offer to move to a different channel and use less spectrum, the stations who did not take the offer would need to be forcibly relocated.”

The provision remains a questionable one even for those who want broadcast spectrum to go to mobile broadband use — such as Calabrese. But his hesitations are very different from those of the broadcasters. 

“There should not be a general expectation that the government needs to pay incumbent license holders when it reallocates spectrum or modifies licenses for public interest holders,” he said, noting that he would like to see narrower policy, such as the targeted bill from Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) that authorizes auctions only for the television bands. 

The bill is not expected to come up for serious consideration until next year, and lacks companion legislation in the House beyond Markey’s bill, which is narrower.

The broadcasters, for their part, sounded a positive note on Tuesday in response to the bill. 

“NAB appreciates the sound spectrum policy goals articulated in the legislation offered by Sens. Kerry and Snowe. Rather than focusing primarily on the reallocation of licensed spectrum, Sens. Kerry and Snowe deserve credit for their holistic approach to identifying all avenues for spectrum efficiency in both the public and private sectors,” said the NAB’s Wharton, adding that the group with “continue to oppose new spectrum fees on free and local broadcasting.”

The bill, most broadly, is aimed at reforming spectrum policy to “modernize the nation’s radio spectrum planning, management, and coordination activities,” according to a statement from the senators.