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Dingell Chides FCC for Withholding Data on Impact of Incentive Auctions

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) Aug. 16 blasted Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski for failing to provide a more substantive response to requests for information on the impact of the agency's plan to free up spectrum for future mobile broadband uses.

In a letter and statement, Dingell said he was “deeply disturbed” about the FCC's “willful” disregard of congressional requests for information, most notably on the issue of spectrum reallocation.

Dingell wants the agency to produce a thorough analysis on the effects of voluntary incentive auctions, in which television broadcasters, who license spectrum through the commission, would voluntarily release some of it back to the government in exchange for a share of the auction proceeds. In particular, Dingell is seeking further explanation of a model the FCC unveiled last June—referred to as the Allotment Optimization Model, or AOM—which the agency plans to use to pinpoint how many stations in which markets could participate in incentive auctions with minimal service disruption.

The FCC has refused to go into much detail about the model, saying in an Aug. 3 letter to Dingell that it is “very much a work in progress” and that disclosing further information about it could “damage the commission's deliberative processes” and lead to public confusion about the “status of the [agency's] work on the voluntary incentive auction concept.”

“While the process of refining the AOM continues, the commission has an interest in ensuring that deliberative information is not disseminated outside the agency and, more importantly, that candid internal discussions are encouraged,” the FCC said in the Aug. 3 letter. “At this stage, any sample AOM model runs would be imprecise and potentially lead people to have an incomplete and misleading snapshot of the post-auction broadcast marketplace,” the commission added.

‘Concealing . . . Agency Actions.'

Dingell fired back at Genachowski and the FCC, expressing his displeasure and also hinting at the possibility of filing Freedom of Information Act requests in the future.

“Your failure to provide me with a detailed response to my inquiry leaves me no choice but to rely upon the analyses performed by private parties as Congress considers whether to grant your agency the authority you seek,” Dingell wrote in the Aug. 16 letter. The FCC does not have the authority to divvy up proceeds of an auction among private entities; all auction revenue must be deposited in the Treasury.

Continuing, Dingell questioned how the FCC could seek that authority without releasing its analysis on the impact of the so-called AOM.

“By keeping this information from Congress—which, as I have so often reminded you, is the sole progenitor of your agency's authorities—you force me to conclude that you in fact are concealing from Congress the true nature and consequences of future agency actions,” Dingell said. “With this in mind, I will oppose granting the commission any statutory authority to conduct such actions that does not include explicit and fair protections for broadcasters.”

Over 2009 to 2010, the National Association of Broadcasters was a top-20 contributor to Dingell's campaign committee and leadership political action committee, donating $15,000.

Dingell and Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) introduced legislation (H.R. 2482) in July that would allow the FCC to hold an incentive auction for the purposes of reallocating spectrum for future mobile broadband use—but only one, a provision the NAB had lobbied for.

NAB Forecasts Station Closures, Service Disruption.

In a new analysis, the NAB estimated that as many as 210 full-power TV stations in 86 markets would be forced off the air if the FCC carries out its National Broadband Plan recommendations to free up spectrum for mobile broadband. Between 900 and 1,200 TV stations would have to change channels as a result of “repacking”—or squeezing remaining stations into a smaller band—which could result in a temporary service disruption for viewers.

Under legislation in both the Senate and House, the return of channels to the FCC would be voluntary, but a repacking would not. According to the NAB, the cost to TV broadcasters choosing not to participate in incentive auctions—those that would be repacked—would be $2.5 billion.

Among the likely expenses incurred by full-power stations are new transmitters ($750,000), new antenna and transmission lines ($200,000-$750,000), new filters ($100,000-$300,000), new combiners ($100,000-$300,000), and reinforced towers or new towers to handle a larger antenna ($200,000-$1.8 million), the NAB said.

In all, the association predicts that 672 of the 1,735 full-power TV stations in the country would have to be “cleared” from channels 31-51 to accommodate the FCC's proposal to reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum from broadcasters.

During the digital TV transition two years ago, only 174 stations were cleared from channels 52-69 and forced to move to a new channel.

The NAB detailed the analysis for reporters late last month in part because the FCC's modeling for spectrum reallocation has been “withheld” from the association.

In his letter, Dingell made a point to criticize the FCC for an agency spokesman's public comment accusing the NAB of engaging in “scare tactics” by the releasing the analysis.

“Providing a substantive response to my June 17 letter would have given the commission an excellent opportunity to prove the NAB was incorrect,” Dingell said. “Your refusal to do so leaves me no alternative but to conclude that the NAB's analysis is probably more correct than not.”

If Congress does grant the FCC the authority to hold incentive auctions, Genachowski said he plans to issue the AOM for public comment before setting the rules for the auction.

By Paul Barbagallo

For the FCC's Aug. 3 letter to Dingell, visit http://tinyurl.com/3e29krz.

For Dingell's Aug. 16 letter, visit http://tinyurl.com/3sbxbua.

 

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