House Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Thursday he was concerned about the Federal Communications Commission's definition of "voluntary" spectrum auctions given what he said was their meaning of a voluntary compromise with the industry on new network neutrality regs and the voluntary conditions imposed on FCC mergers.
That came at a Media Institute speech Thursday in Washington.
"What's voluntary?" he asked his audience. "Watching how the FCC functioned in regards to network neutrality," he said, "there is a new definition of voluntary. When I hear voluntary, and I hear $27.8 billion [potential take from spectrum auctions], and I hear repacking, and I hear what the chairman said to a group this week, it didn't sound very voluntary to me."
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski told a mobile broadband forum this week that the FCC has inventoried spectrum sufficiently to know it needs to get the authority from Congress to auction reclaimed broadcast spectrum. That does not include a spectrum use study that Walden suggested it needed to make. Walden said he understood the value of spectrum, as well as the demand for it, but said it was important who is using it.
"We have to look at interference issues on spectrum. We have to recognize that broadcasters relocated and paid for their relocation. They have a right to [spectrum]."
Genachowski has talked up the industry support he got for the network neutrality rules, which the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and AT&T helped negotiate and have stood behind, though with caveats. Walden said it was obvious to him how that scenario came to be. He said that with a Title II proceeding open, and three of the five votes for that approach, which the FCC was leaning toward, "you [the industry] are going to cut your best deal, and if you are honorable people you are going to live by the deal you've got. You go for the lightest-regulation deal you get and you agree not to oppose it. The FCC has not closed its Title II proceeding, which Genachowski has said was in part to help Congress build a record for broader telecom reform. "I don't know if that [title II] is a little club hanging over here," Walden said, "but it would be pretty handy to grab."
The subcommittee chairman also pointed to an FCC merger process in which the FCC says "oh, by the way, before we agree to that, we want these other things." Those other things being various public interest conditions. "This is the new definition of voluntary," said Walden. He said he did not believe the pages of side agreements in mergers were voluntary - he did not single out Comcast/NBCU, but has been critical of that deal for its raft of conditions.
Walden said it was "offensive to him as a taxpayer when agencies exercise that level of authority. Unchecked, it will only expand. I am troubled by that use of influence and it goes beyond what I would say is the authority granted."
Walden is pushing a resolution of disapproval to invalidate the network neutrality rules, and said he had not given up on Senate passage.
Asked what his next step would be if, as expected, the resolution fails in the Senate, he said, "I still have not given up hope that the Senate may actually approve in a prudent and thoughtful way and approve it. "I still am not of the opinion that that game is over yet, and we're going to continue to work it.
Walden said the subcommittee has been criticized for taking up time with net neutrality rather than spectrum or other issues. He said they wouldn't have had to do so if the issue had not been "thrust upon us."
Walden, a former broadcaster himself, gave a shout out to broadcasters, saying they did an "extraordinary job" of serving their communities, and if they didn't they would not still be in business.
He said the subcommittee's postponed hearing on spectrum issues will likely be rescheduled for next month. It was postponed two weeks ago to make room for a legislative hearing on Walden's resolution. "I am hoping in April," he said, adding that he had no date scheduled yet. "Spectrum is next in the queue. We're trying to sort out witnesses and times."
That, he suggested, would be an opportunity to delve into the FCC's definition of voluntary.
Genachowski indicated this week that voluntary meant that broadcasters baseline service would be as strong or stronger after spectrum was freed up, that the FCC would minimize dislocation, compensate for them, and was proposing not to force anyone to move from a UHF to a VHF allocation.