Sorry to Disappoint, But NAB Is Playing It Straight Up

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler certainly traveled a great distance simply to accuse the NAB yesterday in Las Vegas of seeking to delay or derail his upcoming broadcast spectrum incentive auction. With all due respect Mr. Chairman, I fear that your comments are not only wrong, but will create the very uncertainties and distractions you say you want to avoid.

At both the CCA and CTIA wireless conferences, the Chairman seemed overly preoccupied by NAB’s lawsuit to overturn certain targeted elements of the Commission’s incentive auction order. Among other related comments, in his prepared remarks the Chairman noted that, if NAB “w[as] to win, the effect would be to delay the auction, notwithstanding NAB’s claims to the contrary.”

The NAB “claims” to which the Chairman refers is a blog I recently wrote that details everything NAB is doing to have our legal concerns addressed as soon as possible. NAB did not file a petition for reconsideration first, as T-Mobile and Sprint did, which would have given us another layer of process behind which to hide if we really were aiming for delay. We did not wait until the last minute in the 60-day period during which legal challenges could be filed; we filed on day one. And we affirmatively sought and were granted expedited review of our lawsuit to ensure that it moved rapidly. Hard to assail our efforts to move as expeditiously as possible.

What the Chairman was really saying, however, is that, if NAB wins, then NAB will have caused the auction to be delayed. I guess in one sense that is correct, as the court finding that the FCC acted unlawfully would necessitate a reworking of the rules in question. But if the court finds in our favor, isn’t it the FCC that is responsible for the delay? NAB has laid out why we believe the FCC has acted outside the law in a few distinct areas. We have even proposed numerous compromise solutions that seek to help the FCC achieve what it wants while not harming broadcasters or skirting the law. So if the FCC insists on seeing the litigation through and loses, then it has no one else to blame but itself. Don’t pin that on us.

Look, I’ve been around a bit and I get it. It’s easy to blame the broadcasters when everyone else is chomping at the bit to get our spectrum – whether free (“unlicensed”), paid for in full (AT&T/Verizon Wireless) or at a discounted, government-subsidized rate (T-Mobile, Sprint, DISH).  It’s certainly easier to point the finger at someone else rather than ponder other potentially misguided policy decisions that have undermined trust with the very industries needed to participate in the auction. Easier than blaming the rocky net neutrality proceeding which has sucked nearly all of the air out of the auction room and scared wireless carriers into focusing solely on whether they will be subject to a bevy of new government regulation. Easier than blaming the frayed trust with broadcasters as a result of forcing them to unwind scores of sharing arrangements that had only recently been expressly blessed by the Commission. Easier than blaming the fact that, until just recently, senior FCC leadership has shown little interest in collaborating with broadcasters who are interested in continuing to serve their communities. And it is definitely easier than blaming the fact that would-be spectrum sellers still have no idea what kind of return they can reasonably expect in the auction.

Despite all of these unfortunate self-created obstacles, we at NAB still believe this auction can be a success. We strongly recommend avoiding further finger pointing and getting to the table to try to find the best solutions for all stakeholders. Inventing rumors of wireless carrier disinterest or about NAB “elements” that don’t like the auction is a waste of everyone’s time. NAB has worked very well with all other industries in this proceeding, even when we’ve disagreed with them. We all have an auction to run. NAB is ready. We are willing. But it would sure help if we had a partner at the helm of the FCC.