House Republican Leader Walden Vows Tough Oversight of FCC Incentive Auctions

The Telecommunications Law Resource Center is the most comprehensive reference and news platform for communications law, covering broadcasting, cable, broadband, telephony and wireless;...

By Paul Barbagallo  

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Communications and Technology Subcommittee, told broadcasters April 8 that he will continue to work to ensure that the upcoming Federal Communications Commission (FCC) incentive auctions of spectrum will yield as much revenue as possible for the general treasury and be fair to the television broadcasters.

The FCC is crafting rules for the auctions, in which the agency will try to reclaim airwaves now used for broadcast television and auction them off to carriers led by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc., with a portion of the proceeds paid to the broadcasters.

While the auctions are not expected until 2014, the auction rules likely will be finalized later this year.

The rulemaking has been contentious, as most broadcasters want to either retain their spectrum or maximize the opportunity to sell their spectrum at the highest possible rate.

Las Vegas NAB Speech

“An efficient auction that compensates as many broadcasters as choose to sell, that provides a stable environment for broadcasters that choose not to, and that maximizes auction participation and revenue is in everyone's interests,” Walden said in a speech at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual trade show in Las Vegas, according to a transcript of his remarks made available in Washington.

He also said he will continue “vigorous oversight” of the FCC to prevent the agency from “just turning around and giving away spectrum.”

In recent months, Walden has expressed concern about an FCC proposal to auction the spectrum given up by the broadcasters in 5-megahertz blocks, with 6-MHz “guard” bands to prevent interference between mobile broadband services and broadcast TV services, which would be made available for unlicensed uses, such as Wi-Fi.

Walden prefers that the FCC auction--and license--as much spectrum to the wireless carriers as possible. Spectrum is a scarce government resource, he argues, and must be used wisely so as not to favor unlicensed users such as Silicon Valley tech firms over licensed users such as wireless carriers--or vice versa. Auctioning the spectrum also will mean a monetary return to the general treasury, while allotting spectrum for unlicensed uses will not, he notes.

STELA Reauth Offers Video Market Insights

Walden, in his remarks to the association, said he is open to an examination of the larger video services marketplace in the context of his subcommittees work to reauthorize the 2010 Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, or STELA, which expires in 2014.

STELA is seen as opportunity for Congress to update other communications laws, such as the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act and the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The statute, which authorizes satellite providers to retransmit broadcast TV signals, is the only “must-pass” communications legislation before the committees in 113th Congress. Those seeking reforms already are pushing for smaller “add-ons” to STELA to ensure their quick passage.

One of the add-ons expected to be proposed is a repeal of a provision in the Cable Act that sets forth the rules for negotiations for the right to retransmit broadcast TV programming. Cable operators and satellite TV providers claim the current rules favor the broadcasters and programmers, which can simply shut off their signal when negotiations reach an impasse.

Walden, a former broadcaster, said he still is not convinced that the current system needs reform, but said a look at marketplace competition since the advent of internet video is in order.

“The central questions we should be asking are, first, can we better ensure television viewers have access to the broadcast programming they want while respecting the rights of stations that transmit it over the air, the networks that create it, and the cable, satellite and broadband companies that deliver it?” Walden said. “And second, does doing so require more or less government intervention?”

FCC Process Reform Still a Front-Line Issue

Walden closed his remarks by repeating his call for reform of FCC processes and procedures.

Last March, the House passed Walden's bill, the FCC Process Reform Act, (H.R. 3309), which would require the agency to provide greater justification for regulations and set shot clocks for orders, decisions, reports, and actions. The Senate, however, did not take up the bill last session.

“You need to know that I--and a majority of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and indeed a majority of the House--remain deeply committed to the cause of improving transparency and accountability at the FCC,” Walden said. “Too often the public has had to turn to the courts to prove procedural wrongs at the commission, wasting time and taxpayer resources and leaving the impression with some that the commission considers itself above due process, which I'm sure is not what they intend.”

Senate Democrats are not expected to take up such a measure if reintroduced, believing the provisions in Walden's bill would prevent the FCC from acting to protect consumers and competition.