FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski tries to ease broadcasters’ fears about giving up airwaves

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski tried to ease fears Tuesday about the agency’s broadband plan and expressed concern about recent battles over carriage fees between broadcasters and cable operators.

Speaking at the National Assn. of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, Genachowski said the talk among broadcasters that the FCC was going to appropriate spectrum from them and sell it to telecommunications companies was a myth. The goal of the FCC’s broadband plan, he said, is not to “confiscate broadcasters’ spectrum and drive broadcasters out of business.”

As part of the FCC’s broadband plan, which was presented to Congress last month, the agency has said it would like broadcasters to voluntarily return 120 megahertz of spectrum, or airwaves, allocated to TV stations to allow for quicker mobile phones and improved broadband service. Broadcasters do not want to give up their spectrum and say they want to offer their own mobile services, which could provide a new revenue stream to prop up the local TV business hurt by a loss of advertising to the Internet.

Although Genachowski tried to assuage fears that the FCC would force broadcasters to cough up spectrum, he said the situation could become dire.

“We’re at serious risk as a country in not moving quickly enough on our technology infrastructure and in other areas to remain the world’s leader in innovation.”

This is not “theory or idle speculation,” he added. “It’s math and physics.”

Spectrum wasn’t the only issue of concern that Genachowski broached. He also talked about recent fights between cable operators and broadcasters over fees that in some cases have led to cable customers losing access to local TV channels. That happened in New York in March when Walt Disney Co. briefly pulled the signal of its WABC-TV off Cablevision Systems in a showdown over carriage fees.

So-called retransmission consent disputes have been a regular occurrence in the industry since Congress passed a law almost 20 years ago allowing broadcasters to seek financial compensation from cable operators in return for carrying their signals. The tiffs have grown uglier lately as broadcasters have become more aggressive in seeking fee hikes.

Genachowski said that the marketplace was the preferred method to resolve these issues, but that at the same time he was not too pleased with “sudden program interruptions” and the potential for bigger cable bills. “Some ask, Is ‘free TV’ really free when cable rates go up because of retransmission fees?” he said.

Time Warner Cable Inc. and other distributors have asked the FCC to revisit the retransmission consent rules, and the agency is soliciting comments on the topic.

Genachowski, whose request for spectrum was compared by NAB President Gordon Smith to “The Godfather’s” Vito Corleone making people offers they can’t refuse, joked about the comment when he took the stage in Las Vegas. “All the good restaurants have been offering to comp me.”