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Broadcasters not happy with FCC’s Internet proposal

Critics say aid to wireless carriers could be costly

By Todd Shields
Bloomberg / March 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The US plan to expand high-speed Internet service might come at a cost to broadcasters, and that may signal a fight when lawmakers are asked to help turn television airwaves over to wireless competitors.

The Federal Communications Commission proposal may force TV stations “to change channels and reduce service areas, perhaps stranding millions of viewers,’’ David Donovan, president of the broadcasters’ Association for Maximum Service Television, said yesterday in an e-mail. “ ‘Non-volunteers’ might be punished’’ with “onerous’’ fees, he said.

The agency sent the plan to Congress yesterday, ahead of the schedule set by lawmakers. It calls for “the fastest and most extensive wireless networks’’ of any nation by 2020, to ensure wider service and spur competition with cable and telephone companies. The plan also seeks $12 billion to $16 billion to build and operate a broadband network for emergency workers, with costs covered by revenue from airwave auctions.

“Expanding broadband across the nation will build a foundation of sustained economic growth,’’ President Obama said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. “My administration will build upon our efforts over the past year to make America’s nationwide broadband infrastructure the world’s most powerful platform for economic growth and prosperity.’’

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican, said he was concerned by proposals that may require companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to share fiber lines with competitors. McDowell, at an agency meeting yesterday devoted to the proposal, urged members to avoid “regulatory uncertainty and litigation risk that could scare away capital investment.’’

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, questioned the plan’s suggestion to take airwaves away from broadcasters in order to expand access for mobile applications.

“I am concerned about sacrificing an essential service to our communities in favor of new apps that have nothing to do with ensuring that we have meaningful access to news and information,’’ Clyburn said. “It is unclear at this point whether the Internet can replace those trusted sources.’’

The five commissioners voted unanimously to accept a joint statement on broadband. They didn’t vote on the plan.

The agency wants to persuade TV stations to give up their airwaves for wireless Web use, in return for payment. Congress will be asked to authorize auctions of the spectrum. If the sales fail to free enough airwaves, the FCC should consider having broadcasters “on a voluntary or involuntary basis’’ change how their transmission towers work, or require channel sharing, the plan said. The FCC “should consider’’ seeking permission to charge broadcasters fees to use spectrum.

“We are concerned by reports today that suggest many aspects of the plan may in fact not be as voluntary as originally promised,’’ said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the Washington-based National Association of Broadcasters.

CTIA-the Wireless Association is “extremely pleased,’’ according to an e-mailed statement from the Washington-based trade association. It lists as members the four largest US wireless carriers: AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless, which is owned by Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC.

Democrats including Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the Commerce Committee, and Representative Rick Boucher of Virginia, chairman of a communications panel of the House Commerce Committee, said in statements they welcomed the plan. Republican Representatives Joe Barton of Texas and Cliff Stearns of Florida in statements said in statements that the FCC should concentrate on broadband for households in hard-to-reach communities the market might not serve.

The FCC set a long-term goal of 100 million households with connections of 100 megabits per second, and said tracking progress over the next decade could serve as “a compass.’’ The median speed for broadband customers now connected by fiber or cable is 5 megabits to 6 megabits per second, the FCC said in the plan.

“Some of the goals propounded are clearly hortatory and admittedly long-term,’’ Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a Maryland-based policy group, said in an e-mailed statement.