Lawmakers Whip Up War of Words Over White Spaces

The vote is set for Nov. 4, and the activism is approaching historic — some say hysteric — levels. Phone calls, e-mails and press releases are flying in attempts to sway opinions; there are charges and countercharges of questionable political tactics and quotes taken out of context, along with a little name-calling.

McCain vs. Obama? Try the National Association of Broadcasters, including networks and local stations, vs. the Wireless Innovation Alliance, including Google and Microsoft, all centering on the contentious white spaces broadcast spectrum issue.

NAB Push

Score the latest round for the NAB; it is trumpeting a letter sent late Thursday to the Federal Communications Commission by eight members of Congress, asking for a delay in the scheduled Nov. 4 vote on whether to officially open up the unused areas between digital broadcast signals known as “white spaces.” An FCC engineering report worries the NAB, which is concerned about new wireless Web devices using white space spectrum interfering with broadcast signals, and the lobbying group has spent the last seven days putting its media relations and congressional lobbying efforts into overdrive.

“The NAB has done as much as it can to educate members of Congress, knowing full well that most are out of town trying to get re-elected,” NAB spokesperson Dennis Wharton told the E-Commerce Times. “But it’s incumbent for us to do this. We don’t make any apologies for trying to protect the future of television.”

The WIA says it’s a new generation of wireless broadband access devices, manufactured by some of its members, that’s at stake with a successful FCC vote. The alliance says the NAB is using unwarranted delaying tactics. “It’s not surprising that the broadcasters have chosen to fight this so vociferously,” WIA spokesperson Jake Ward said. “They have only two speeds: full speed ahead and dead stop. Full ahead on the lobbying, dead stop on innovation,” Ward told the E-Commerce Times.

Lobbyists Working Overtime

Wharton said its members began “full court press” efforts late last week, when the FCC released the findings of an engineering report stating no interference problems for prototype devices using spectrum-sensing plus geolocation methods. Some using pure spectrum-sensing may have to go back to the drawing board, but there were enough encouraging signs for FCC chairman Kevin Martin to throw his support behind opening up white spaces and to place the issue on the Nov. 4 agenda.

The NAB claims the report’s optimistic executive summary is at odds with what it says are more troubling aspects in the full 400-page technical report. That launched efforts from the NAB to get statements of support from other groups concerned about wireless signal interference. Reporters covering the issue have seen their e-mail inboxes fill with NAB press releases detailing concerns from all four broadcast network chiefs, all major sports leagues, Broadway theater owners, Harrah’s Entertainment, the New York City Council and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla. All ask the FCC to allow more public comment on the engineering report.

All this came about from NAB member lobbying applied at both the national and state level, Wharton said. “My sense is there are going to be other members of Congress who are going to be sending letters to the commission as well. There’s a general feeling of dismay, I think, and outrage to some degree, that there’s such a rush to judgment on this issue.”

Will the pressure make the FCC delay its plans? “It’s up for a vote on Nov. 4. The chairman has not pulled it (from the agenda),” FCC spokesperson Matt Nodine told the E-Commerce Times. “I think it’s really important to note that this issue has been around for a year and a half. This is not being rushed by any stretch of the imagination.”

Complaints About NAB Tactics

Broadcasters have a long history of opposing new technologies that they claimed would threaten their members, the WIA’s Ward said.

“They tried to stop cable, Tivo, the XM-Sirius merger — delays and stalling tactics have been the broadcasters’ central play in their playbook since the beginning.”

The FCC is the only unbiased and objective organization involved in this debate, Ward said, and it should remain unfazed by all the time and money spent by the various advocacy groups. As for the members of Congress who now want a delay in the Nov. 4 vote, “my question is do they really believe it’s a good idea to substitute their judgment for the independent agency whose mission is to consider these technologies,” Ward said.

Ward has also seen the NAB press releases over the past week. He takes exception to one that he claims takes quotes from the New American Foundation’s Michael Calabrese out of context. Calabrese spoke at an Oct. 21 Foundation event at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. “Take TV off the air,” Calabrese was reported to have said by Communications Daily. He also said that the FCC’s power limits to white space devices to cut down on broadcast signal interference would be modified over time.

Those comments found their way into an NAB press release titled “Broadcasters Alert FCC to White Space Proponents’ End Game.” The WIA fought back with its own press release, “Desperate Times Call for Distorted Realities.”

“I’m not too surprised, because the NAB has long been the Karl Rove of industry lobbies in Washington,” Calabrese told the E-Commerce Times. “They practice a Luddite slash-and-burn politics that really doesn’t argue the facts very often.”

Calabrese, who focuses on future wireless initiatives for the Foundation, says he’s always been supportive of broadband and broadcast cohabiting on the spectrum. His “take TV off the air” comments referred to a day in the future when all channels would be accessed via the Internet.

“As broadband access becomes ubiquitous, it will be much more efficient for the remaining broadcasters to stream their local stations,” Calabrese said. “So eventually you’ll have so many different ways to receive local TV stations that tying up the most valuable part of the spectrum will no longer seem viable. But that’s some years down the road.”

1 Comment

  • NAB is nothing but an Ambulance chaser. These guys have no morale. Look at how they were lobbying against Sirius-XM merger. FCC also has lost its credibilty as an independent regulator. These guys were abusing their power for so long and some of the congressmen and senators were also party to this corruption. All the sirius troubles are caused by the NAB and FCC. Will these guys ever their act together and work truthfully for the salary they get from tax payers?

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