(October 11, 2000) FCC Chairman Kennard harshly criticized TV broadcasters for their slow deployment of digital television, and their failure to broadcast debates, other elections content, and free advertising. He stated that the broadcasters' slow conversion to digital TV constitutes "spectrum squatting". It prevents the FCC from auctioning their analog spectrum to providers of wireless services, including Internet access.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard spoke at the Museum of TV and Radio in New York City on October 10. He spoke in unusually blunt and critical language. However, television broadcasters have incurred the wrath of Kennard, not only for their handling of DTV and presidential debates, but also for lobbying the Congress to pass legislation restricting the FCC on low power FM licensing, and for other matters.
Kennard stated that "Congress granted the networks this digital spectrum in addition to the conventional analog spectrum they already have, effectively giving broadcasters twice their allotment of precious bandwidth. And they said that the broadcasters could keep the analog portion of the spectrum until 2006, or until DTV penetration reached 85% of the American market, whichever is later."
"Basically, the broadcast networks were the beneficiaries of the biggest government giveaway since Peter Stuyvesant bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24," said Kennard. "And, to compound the public damage of this protectionism, the broadcasters have decided to sit on these two highly valuable properties -- licensed to them for free by Congress -- for as long as they can."
"Now, spectrum-squatting may make great business sense for the broadcasters, but in terms of the public interest it makes no sense at all. Squatting on empty spectrum smothers innovation and endangers America’s lead in new technologies," said Kennard.
This spectrum, which now used for analog broadcast, would be made available for auction to wireless providers.
Tom Wheeler, the CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, was elated by Kennard's speech. The wireless communications industry wants more spectrum, in part to provide wireless Internet access.
Wheeler wrote a letter to Kennard in which he stated that "The rest of the world is building the pathways for the next generation Internet - a wireless Internet - while American consumers and entrepreneurs are encumbered with spectrum policies that hold us back."
Broadcasters, in turn, have blamed the FCC for the slow roll out of DTV. For example, when the FCC adopted rules on September 14 for the labeling of digital television receivers to insure that consumers will be fully informed about the capabilities of digital TV receivers to operate with cable television systems, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) criticized the action.
It stated: "Despite the best efforts of broadcasters, digital television’s potential remains unfulfilled in part because of FCC inaction on several critical issues. Today’s FCC proposal to add additional regulation to a service still in the embryo is regrettable."
Kennard also recommended that Congress pass legislation to do three things:
Kennard also had harsh words for the broadcasters for their coverage of elections.
"We call ourselves the greatest democracy in the history of the world, and we undoubtedly are," said Kennard. "But, frankly, the disarray and disinterest of our mass media towards fulfilling its crucial democratic commitments give me serious pause."
"For fifty years, the solemn public interest commitment of broadcasters, borne of their role as public trustees of the airwaves, has deteriorated in the face of financial pressures and an increasingly competitive marketplace."
Kennard added that "we reached a new low last week, when two of the four major networks – NBC and Fox -- chose to preempt the first debate of the most hotly contested Presidential election in four decades for sports and entertainment programming."