The Federal Communications Commission should not force broadcasters off their spectrum now, or ever, according to House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.).
"Spectrum should not be taken away from broadcasters," Boucher told a roomful of broadcasters at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual Washington get-together, drawing strong applause.
Boucher went further. He said he supported the FCC's announced plan to try to get spectrum back voluntarily, saying it was "now on the right track. There would be no decision forced upon you," he said. "You would simply have an option you don't have now and that is to sell some of the spectrum to the government, which would then auction it for other uses."
He even suggested he had helped put them on that track. "I had discussions at the commission [he said later that was at the staff level] that the forced approach was wrong and that the voluntary compensation approach was right."
But he said even that effort should not come before the FCC has conducted a through spectrum review to find out the best place to get it. Boucher has co-sponsored a spectrum inventory bill, which has passed the subcommittee. He predicted it could be marked up by the full committee as early as next week.
"We are clearly going to need new spectrum in the near future," he said, "but the right first step is not to take spectrum from any particular source but to identify where spectrum is currently underutilized so that we have a blueprint for moving forward."
Boucher said he was as convinced as any that more spectrum was needed for all those wireless mobile applications, but he also said spectrum was needed to provide the HD pictures viewers were promised during a DTV transition that they helped pay for.
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski outlined the FCC's voluntary proposal in a speech last week, but the FCC's broadband team has also indicated that a voluntary approach might have to be revisited if not enough broadcasters ponied up.
Boucher also said that whatever the FCC does, it should leave the remaining broadcasters with sufficient spectrum for an HD signal.
"I don't think it should be mandatory," Boucher said to reporters after his speech to the group. "The digital transition proceeded with millions of Americans buying set-top boxes on the assumption that there would be television service provided over-the-air in high definition for those who wanted to receive it that way. It simply would not be possible to fulfill that expectation if television broadcasters had spectrum taken from them to the point that their HD got scrunched down to a standard definition signal."
Boucher said he would have a series of hearings on the plan once it was released, and that broadcasters would definitely be included.