Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) emerged as an early champion of broadcasting in a House spectrum hearing Tuesday, at least when it came to providing emergency communications.
The first of what will be a series of spectrum hearings focused mostly on emergency communications, including whether to sell or allocate the D block of spectrum for a national interoperable network. But issues of repacking and how voluntary the FCC spectrum reallocation plan is got some hearing time as well.
And broadcasters were part of that conversation as well, with Markey pointing out that broadcasters are "a big part of our safety response capacity because people turn to radio and television to get their information, so we want to make sure those local broadcasters are there."
He also pressed the FCC witness, Julius Knapp, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology, on what percentage of spectrum the government needs could be freed up by being more efficient with the spectrum already allocated. "A significant percentage," asked Markey. "A fair percentage," said Knapp, who, pressed by Markey said it was probably somewhere between 10% and 50%, a range proposed by Markey that Knapp said was probably about right.
"Good," said Markey. "We can get a big part of this problem solved just by ensuring there is more efficient use of the spectrum." Markey also pointed to public interest principles the FCC needed to abide by.
Then turning to another "Good," broadcast witness Robert Good, chief engineer at WGAL-TV, Markey asked whether if the spectrum reallocation and auction process was voluntary, if broadcasters were compensated, and if interference were not created for other stations who did not wish to participate, whether broadcasters were open-minded to reallocation.
Good said that only if broadcasters were held harmless, by which he meant that "coverage areas are the same." Markey asked whether that was something that could be worked out among engineers of common sense and good will. Good could not get there given the issue of repacking. "I am not confident we can achieve that type of coverage given that scenario."
The issue of what constitutes voluntary appears to have hit a major sticking point over repacking, or moving broadcasters to make room for larger swaths of spectrum needed by wireless broadband. At the NAB convention in Las Vegas Tuesday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said the definition would not include broadcasters who do not agree to participate in auctions being able to refuse repacking, while NAB President Gordon Smith said forced repacking was clearly not broadcasters' idea of a voluntary regime.
The most pointed questions about the impact of the FCC spectrum reclamation plan on broadcasters came from John Dingell (D-Mich.), famous for requiring one-word answers, though he allowed some leeway.
One he had determined that Knapp had helped draft the broadband plan, he asked whether the FCC had failed to take into account the channel reservations of the Canadians, which are protected by treaty, in cities like Detroit. Knapp said that the plan had acknowledged that, and that since the report the commission has taken that into account and was talking to the Canadians. Dingell said that he understood that in order to get the 120 MHZ from broadcasters would, if the Canadian allocations were preserved, that would leave no available U.S. broadcast channels.
Knapp said he did not believe that would be the case. But he also conceded that the FCC would not know exactly what channels would be available. "The repacking will depend on what stations participate in the incentive auction," Knapp said, "and we don't know which those will be."
Knapp said there would also need to be negotiations with the Mexican border. Dingell concluded that the government was "buying a pig in a poke" given that the FCC won't exactly know what it is going to do until after it auctions the spectrum. "When are we going to get the precise character of what it is you are doing so we can tell what it is that we are voting for or against," he said. What the FCC wants them to vote for is the authority to conduct incentive auctions, which means the authority to pay broadcasters to vacate spectrum.
Knapp said that only after it conducted the voluntary incentive auction, and saw who had participated, "that is when we would know the final plan. "You have comforted me but little," said Dingell, echoing a familiar commentary on testimony.
"And you are not the first witness to achieve that high praise," added Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) taking some of the sting off the closing.
Walden launched the hearing with an opening statement that made clear he was looking at far more than broadcasting to get the spectrum he concedes is needed for broadband.
In talking of the bands ripe for auction, Walden began with spectrum in the Advanced Wireless Services band, then he talked of the government-controlled spectrum, and then the D block, which public safety officials want allocated and some others, including many Republicans, would prefer being auctioned to a commercial user who could share it with public safety.
When he finally got around to broadcasting, it was in the context of incentive auctions and identified as only one possible band to benefit. And he made the point that "while there has been a lot of discussion about innovation in the wireless communications space, innovation isn't limited to that industry. America's broadcasters continue to work to bring innovative services t over the air television viewers."
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) gave a shout-out to mobile DTV, saying that is how some of her constituents kept up with vital news and info during some disastrous Tennessee floods.