FCC Chairman Noncommittal On Possibility of Mandated Spectrum Reclamation

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The toughest grilling of the Democratic FCC chairman at an agency oversight hearing Wednesday arguably came from the House's longest-serving Democratic member.

At the Communications Subcommittee Hearing on network neutrality rules and other topics, Rep. John Dingell, (D-Mich.) known for blunt questions and the expectation of one-word responses, pressed FCC chairman Julius Genachowski on whether the commission would mandate a broadcaster move off spectrum.

Citing the National Broadband Plan's statement that the ability to clear and reauction spectrum would be an "appropriate tool" if a voluntary process stalls, the FCC has proposed reclaiming 120 MHz of broadcast spectrum through channel repacking, sharing and voluntary give-backs, with the incentive being compensating them out of the auctioning of that reclaimed spectrum for advanced wireless. Congress must first provide the authority to use some of those funds for the payments--which the White House supports.

Dingell asked whether that language meant the commission would forcefully take spectrum from broadcasters if too few participate in voluntary auctions, "yes or no."

"We haven't addressed that question," said Genachowski. "We've proposed a win-win-win incentive auctions that will free up billions of dollars and bring market incentives into spectrum allocations, helping give this country what it needs--a lot more spectrum for mobile broadband."

Dingell pressed on. "You are going to have a voluntary spectrum auction. How is it going to be voluntary if there is pressure placed on the holders of this spectrum by the commission?"

The chairman said it was because the auctions would rely on market incentives, allowing the market to set a price for licensees to chose between continuing what they were doing or take the offer. Dingell said it sounded more like a bank holdup, with a gun pointed at the teller's head: "We know that your going to voluntarily give you this money and if you don't we are going to shoot you."

"Only if the free market is a bank holdup," the chairman replied. "I'll let you know I have some dark suspicions on this matter," Dingell responded.

"Do you believe that a broadcaster who does not participate in voluntary incentive auctions should be forced to relinquish its current spectrum allocation, yes or no," Dingell asked again, then cut off the chairman as he began his answer with a doff of the cap to the importance of broadcasting and made the point that Congress is still looking at providing that authority. Dingell retorted with a remark about "contemplating your navel," and asked him and the other commissioners to respond in writing.

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