In the above-captioned DTS NPRM, the Commission continues its unfortunate habit of making major policy decisions in a piecemeal fashion that ill-serves the public. The proposed "technical" rules will settle valuable spectrum access privileges, while permitting larger "policy" questions to languish. The current proceeding, spun off from the much larger comprehensive Second Periodic Review of the Commission's Rules Affecting the Conversion to Digital Television, 19 FCCRcd 18279 (2004), purports to address only a modest technical question raised in the digital transition the use of distributed transition system technologies (DTS) to expand the number of viewers broadcasters will reach directly through their broadcast services. Absent from the NPRM is any reasoned consideration, or even any acknowledgement, that the proposed rulemaking will effectively transfer billions of dollars of public spectrum rights to a handful of private licensees. In doing so, this "technical" proceeding will effectively foreclose the important policy questions raised in the Commission's pending proceeding on allowing access to the broadcast "white spaces" to the benefit of the public as a whole. See ET Docket No. 04-186.
NAF, et al. do not dispute that, as a general matter, it serves the public interest to expand broadcast programming available to viewers, particularly in areas with few channels or where geography has long prevented viewers from benefiting from the availability of free over-the-air programming. But the Commission must weigh this modest general benefit against the potential for a greater harm in cutting off public access to spectrum that would otherwise become available at the conclusion of Docket No. 04- 186. With increasing consumer demand for mobile high-speed data servicesand with the U.S. decline to 16th in the world in broadband penetrationthe Commission must weigh whether this unassigned and currently unused "white space" would benefit consumers and the economy to a greater degree if it was reallocated for advanced wireless services under the access regime proposed in rule making 04-186.
The Commission also proposes to vastly expand the value of these public licenses without determining how commercial broadcasters will repay the public and their local communities through concrete public interest obligations. For more than six years the Commission has permitted this critically important question to languish, albeit with the important exception of the children's television rules, while continuing to move full speed ahead on the wish list of licensees. See generally Docket Nos. 99-360, 00-167, 00- 168.
Last February, almost one year to the day on which these comments are due, the Commission stated that the pending public interest and localism proceedings were "essential components" of the Commission's strategy for transition to digital television and stated it would "move forward on these decisions within the next few months, and complete action in these dockets by the end of the year." In re Carriage of Digital Television Broadcast Signals, Second Report & Order, 20 FCCRcd 4516, 4537 (2005). It is therefore puzzling that the Commission has proposed to begin a new proceeding that will confer valuable new rights on broadcasters, without even beginning to "move forward" with the pending public interest and localism dockets. Certainly the Commission should "complete action" on these "essential components" before resolving the details of DTS.
The Commission should not ignore the enormous increase in the value of the free public licenses held by the licensees, and hold that the general benefit of expanding program availability to some adequately compensates the public. Because all television licensees will benefit from a Commission determination to permit use of DTS, the Commission should require genuine, concrete and measurable public interest obligations from digital broadcasters as, for example, demanded by the Public Interest, Public Airwaves Coalition.1
Given that this "technical" proceeding has implications for the evolution of broadcasting as a serviceincluding the ability to derive far greater revenues from future "ancillary" broadband service than from broadcastingthe Commission should not seek to evade the policy questions raised in this proceeding. Before completing yet another item on the broadcast licensee "wish list," the Commission should move expeditiously to conclude both the "white spaces" proceeding and set concrete public interest obligations on digital broadcast licensees.
1 See, e.g., Letter from James A Bachtell to Marlene Dortch, MM Docket Nos. 03-15, 00-186, 99-360 (June 24, 2004) (providing processing guide, model disclosure form, and memo in support of proposal).
To view the full comments, see the attached PDF file.