Obama, as expected, backs FCC's broadband spectrum play

It's a dog-bites-man tale with the potential for an unhappy ending. President Obama has signed a memorandum stating that the U.S. will make an additional 500 MHz of broadband spectrum available for auction within the next 10 years as part of the National Broadband Plan being proffered by the administration's hand-picked FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Saying you want the spectrum is one thing; getting it is another. About half the 500 MHz will come from government agencies that apparently will have no choice but to give it up, although one can anticipate some pretty nasty inter-agency spats there. The rest is now in the hands of broadcasters and cable operators who haven't shown any great willingness to part with it. The plan's success also depends on cooperation between governmental agencies and, more ominously, political parties.

As outlined by White House economic advisor Lawrence Summers, the spectrum grab holds out a carrot for broadcasters. "If a station decides to share its spectrum or give up its licenses it will share in the proceeds in the auctions," he said. "This plan is based on volunteerism."

What happens if the broadcasters don't "volunteer" to relinquish their spectrum is another matter, especially if you read between the lines of the statement issued by Dennis Wharton, the NAB's EVP of media relations. "We're convinced that America can have both the finest broadband and broadcasting system in the world without jeopardizing the future of free and local TV service to tens of millions of viewers."

On the flip side of the coin, Wharton was also telling the Baltimore Sun about the wonders of mobile digital TV-the broadcasters' own planned use of the spectrum. "We think it has the potential to usher in a renaissance in over-the-air television," he said.

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