Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski said Monday that the commission's repacking of TV stations after spectrum incentive auctions would not compromise their ability to deliver mobile DTV, and that its proposal to move TV station political files online was simply part of a larger effort to move files from paper to digital.
He also and promised to look into reports that the FCC was denying an inordinate number of Freedom of Information Requests or had dramatically increased the number of highly paid staffers between 2008 and 2009.
Those were just some of the highlights from a wide-ranging discussion of FCC issues, budgetary and otherwise at a House Financial Services and General Government subcommittee hearing Monday on the FCC's budget.
Genachowski was asked by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) what steps the FCC was taking to insure that when it repacks stations to free up larger swaths of spectrum for auction it does not compromise broadcasters' ability to deliver mobile DTV, including important local news and information. Genachowski said he had given broadcasters those assurances. He said the FCC was encouraging innovative uses of spectrum, that broadcasters had the flexibility to provide the service, and that the marketplace would decide whether mobile DTV would be a success.
FCC commissioner Robert McDowell, who was also on hand to talk budget -- though he does not participate in its crafting -- used some of his time to caution Congress about the FCC's proposal to put station political files online. "Where are the equities in singling out only television broadcasters for such disclosure requirements when political campaigns spend money on a plethora of outlets to contact and influence voters," he said in prepared testimony.
The issue took up much of the early portion of the hearing as Subcommittee chair Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) pressed the chairman on why the FCC was spending time on the issue when it had other things, like Universal Service Reform and spectrum auctions, to deal with.
Genachowski said that the FCC was still considering the issues in an open proceeding on the proposal, but that in general it was essentially a question of whether it made sense as it boosted its online interaction with stations -- applications, complaints, renewals -- to include the public files that currently are paper in filing cabinets.
McDowell said that he was all for transparency, and that it was not an issue of transparency or even of putting some of the public files online. He said broadcasters were complaining specifically about the political files because of the added expense to keep them online and in real time, as well as having to post proprietary information. And rather than other parts of the public file, which have to do with stations service to the community, the political file had to do with the price of election advertising. "The political file contains information for candidates seeking to purchase political ads and sheds light on the spending patterns of campaigns, political committees, third- party groups and such," he said. "Unlike other parts of the public inspection file, the contents of the political file do not speak to whether a broadcaster is serving its local community of license. The political file is a tool for examining transparency in campaign spending rather than broadcaster behavior."
Genachowski said that no new information was being made public in the proposal, and as to whether it was more the province of the Federal Election Commission, a suggestion some legislators raised, he said that FCC had been instructed to require the TV station political file reporting by Congress in 2002 and that stations reported the
info as part of their public-interest obligations.
Emerson hammered away on the issue, saying her media buyer could get access to political file info without having to go knock on every station door. Genachowski suggested that it was not as easy for the general public. She asked why the FCC was not suggesting expanding the online requirement to cable or radio?
He simply said he was not proposing expanding the requirement and said broadcasters have unique obligations, including as singled out in the 2002 McCain-Feingold law. He reiterated that it is an open docket and that the FCC is still considering whether or not to move the files online.
McDowell said that TV stations had told him it could cost up to $140,000 per station annually to comply with a mandate to post the files in real time.
Suggesting he was prompted to look into the issue by the FCC's refusal to provide LightSquared documents to Sen. Charles Grassley, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said he had done some digging and found that the FCC had denied 48% of such requests in 2010 compared to an average of 7.3% for the rest of the government, and for one
subcategory of denials, it had refused more than the CIA.
Why does the FCC have more secrets than the CIA, he asked the chairman. Genachowski responded that he was not familiar with those statistics, but that there were professionals at the FCC who dealt with those requests and he would get together with the Congressman to figure out what they meant.
"The FCC is a government leader in transparency, including under the Freedom of Information Act," said an FCC spokesman in an e-mail response to the Diaz-Balart questioning. "Just last week, the Attorney General recognized the FCC for its ‘particularly exemplary' use of the FCC.gov website to proactively release agency records and data, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa gave the FCC an ‘A' for its FOIA record-keeping. In Fiscal Year 2011, the vast majority of FOIA requests that could be processed led to disclosure of records. Only about 3% (20 of 594) of the FOIA requests that were complete with fees paid could not be accommodated when the FCC had responsive records."
The FCC did make some LightSquared documents available pursuant to FOIA requests, but not the documents Grassley sought in a non-FOIA request.
Other hearing highlights:
*Genachowsksi was asked by Yoder how the FCC could insure GPS investors that there would not be a repeat of LightSquared-like potential interference to GPS. The chairman said that the FCC still wanted to remove the prohibition on using satellite spectrum for terrestrial mobile broadband--the waiver it issued LightSquared and
is now proposing rescinding due to GPS interference issues--so would need to figure out how to resolve the issue of GPS receivers sensing in-band transmissions, which had been the case with LightSquared.
*The chairman said he would look into what appeared to be a large jump in FCC salaries of over $150,000, although later in the hearing he seemed to have hit on a possible answer for those salaries going from 46 in 2008 to over 400 in 2009. While he pointed out that was before he came to the commission, he said staffers had advised him -- apparently in the time between when the issue was raised first in the hearing and an hour or so later -- that there may have been a general change in pay grade from just under $150,000 to just over, which would account for the increase. Genachowski offered some other possibilities, including that the FCC increasingly needed economists, engineers and others with advanced degrees to deal with an increasingly complicated, digital world.
*McDowell reiterated his call for reforming the contribution side of the Universal Service Fund. The chairman said that was in the works, but pointed out that the FCC's reforms of the distribution side would already translate into savings for consumers.
*Genachowski got a shout out from Emerson for finding $6 million in cost savings. She asked for a list of the 200 regs he said the FCC had excised, saying she would like to get other agencies to follow his lead. McDowell said he would also like to see that list, suggesting that while the FCC was pruning some, it was growing others in the form of additional regs the FCC had passed over his dissent.
*It would not be a Hill hearing without someone asking whether the Fairness Doctrine was going to be revived. The chairman, who took the vestiges of that doctrine off the books last year, prompted by McDowell, reiterated that he thought it had been a bad policy from the outset and it was gone. McDowell added a caveat, however, saying that under a different chairman, perhaps, it could come back in another form. He said it would definitely not be called the fairness doctrine next time around, but advised continued vigilance.
*Ranking member Jose Serrano (D-NY) said that he was concerned that the FCC might need more money budgeted for the incentive auctions. Genachowski said he was not asking for more people, but was also concerned about having sufficient engineering, legal and other expertise.