Lawmakers concerned about spectrum reallocation

The FCC’s sweeping proposal to connect the country to high-speed Internet had its Congressional hearing Thursday, with some lawmakers expressing concerns over a proposal to re-allocate the broadcasters spectrum for wireless use.

Many lawmakers at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet expressed praise for the National Broadband Plan, introduced last week, which provides a framework for making ubiquitous affordable access to the Internet at greatly improved speed.

But one of the more contentious parts of the plan calls for obtaining 120 MHz of spectrum now in the hands of television broadcasters to address consumer demand for the growing wireless market. It calls for a voluntary system in which broadcasters can be enticed to give up their spectrum with the promise of sharing in the proceeds of so-called “incentive auctions.” But the plan also raises the prospect of “spectrum fees” on broadcasters, something that is vigorously opposed by the industry lobby.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) expressed worry that such a plan would lead to a loss of consumer choice, suggesting that it could threaten the diversity of station ownership as well as local content. Noting that broadcasters already gave up nearly one-third of their spectrum in the transition to digital television, he said that “further loss of spectrum can have a very serious effect.”

He also pressed FCC chairman Julius Genachowski on whether the spectrum allocation would really be voluntary. A memorandum sent to subcommittee members explained that if a voluntary approach proved inadequate, the FCC would obtain spectrum “through other means.”

“Are these other mechanisms going to be voluntary, yes or no?” Dingell asked the FCC chairman.

Genachowski answered, “I think that speaks for itself.” He added that his focus was on a “win-win” situation for broadcasters and the government, and “I would be speculating on what would happen if we faced a spectrum crisis.”

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rick Boucher (D-Va.) endorsed the spectrum plan, calling the voluntary transfer “the right approach.” He also noted that the House was poised to pass a bill that calls for a comprehensive inventory of all spectrum that could be used for commercial purposes.

Other lawmakers expressed concerns that the plan didn’t adequately address fears that enhanced broadband access would orsen the proliferation of online piracy. But the FCC is expected to go into more detail as it considers new rules to ensure open Internet access, commonly referred to as “net neutrality.”

Reflecting the view of some conservatives, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) was skeptical of the need for such a wide-ranging Internet plan in the first place, telling the FCC commissioners, “You are all trying to fix something that in most cases isn’t broke.”

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