Years-old debate over opening up broadcast spectrum plays out Las Vegas convention

Broadcast industry professionals anticipating a verbal brawl Tuesday between the head of the National Association of Broadcasters and the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission may have been disappointed.

But when the association’s president and CEO, Gordon Smith, and the commission’s Tom Wheeler collided in a regulatory keynote address at the organization’s Las Vegas convention, both emerged unscathed — and neither changed their minds on policy.

Wheeler joked that he knew those in attendance were anticipating a mano-a-mano exchange — and that it would be best-suited for free broadcast and not a pay-per-view event.

The issue being played out at the convention attended by more than 94,000 industry professionals has been debated for years. The Federal Communications Commission is implementing policy approved by Congress to open the spectrum that carries radio and television signals to new uses, collecting billions of dollars in the process by selling it in auctions. Broadcasters say the playing field is uneven for them because they have to abide by decades-old regulations the broadband industry doesn’t have to follow.

“It’s no secret that the NAB has been critical of some of my actions and that Gordon Smith has his sleeves rolled up for a brawl,” Wheeler said.

But Wheeler took the opportunity to defend the commission’s stance on the redistribution of the spectrum. He told the overflow crowd attending the presentation that the policy represents an opportunity for the broadcast industry.

Wheeler said he expects the public policy decision by Congress to auction spectrum would raise the bar for spectrum use and that broadcasters would step up with what they do best — serving the public with local content that broadband has a harder time providing.

Wheeler said he thinks broadcasters have opportunities because consumers have begun to grumble about the higher costs of cable television and smartphone content and data use.

Broadcasters may need to seek other investment sources or voluntarily surrender unused spectrum to finance new strategies, he said.

“Today, I have the American people as my client,” Wheeler said. “I strongly believe that the interests of the American people are served well by a vibrant broadcast community. The message today is optimism, not opposition, and I want to focus on the opportunities that lie ahead for broadcast licensees in the 21st century.”

Wheeler used the history of transportation as an analogy of what he sees happening.

He said canal and barge companies succumbed to railroads because they failed to redefine themselves as transportation operations instead of barge companies. Likewise, radio and television need to redefine themselves as digital information providers instead just broadcasters.

“We want to see broadcast licensees as a growing competitor in the digital market,” he said.

Wheeler said Verizon and AT&T “are embracing something new that looks startling like your model” by developing relationships to provide National Football League games on portable devices. He added that Yahoo is planning to provide live newscasts over the Internet.

“We hope broadcast licensees view this as a call to action,” he said.

But Smith noted that regulatory blocks remain. He said most smartphones are equipped with chips that would enable users to capture and play FM radio signals. Regulatory changes are necessary to activate those chips, he said. That’s just one of the regulations Smith hopes to see changed.

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter @RickVelotta.