Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski has a spectrum politics problem problem. On the one hand, he learned from last year’s D Block battle that he needs to stay aggressively on message to sell his spectrum reforms. His every speech on spectrum therefore reads like a campaign speech for incentive auctions. ‘We have a looming spectrum crisis, we need bold action, Congress must act now to pass incentive auctions.’ But, as Genachowski has discovered, this approach can have unintended consequences. Recently, Commissioner Robert McDowell reported that this focus on incentive auctions created uncertainty in Silicon Valley over the FCC’s commitment to the TV white spaces (TVWS). This follows earlier concerns from Senator Snowe (R-ME) and others that the Chairman’s exclusive public focus on incentive auctions invariably means giving short shrift to other, equally important spectrum reforms identified in the National Broadband Plan.
Genachowski moved quickly to reaffirm that support for TVWS remains strong and that TVWS is a big part of the FCC’s spectrum for broadband initiative. Further, the inclusion of several spectrum items for the next open FCC meeting shows that Genachowski remains committed to broad spectrum reform. But these incidents underscore Genachowski’s difficult dilemma. How can he campaign to push through incentive auctions on the one hand, while making sure that other aspects of the spectrum reform agenda receive the prominence and attention they need to move forward? The fact that anyone could doubt the FCC’s continuing commitment to developing the TVWS despite its broad bipartisan support and support from the Obama Administration spectrum team underscores how little it takes to undermine confidence even in reforms already accomplished.
Commissioner Meredith Baker may hold the solution to Chairman Genachowski’s spectrum politics dilemma. Genachowski should appoint Commissioner Baker chair of the reconstituted Spectrum Task Force. At the moment, the Spectrum Task Force is co-chaired by Julie Knapp (Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology) and Ruth Milkman (Chief of the Wireless Bureau). In an ideal world, having two such extraordinarily qualified experts and Bureau Chiefs heading the Spectrum Task Force would be enough to show that Genachowski is not neglecting spectrum reform outside incentive auctions. But in status-conscious Washington DC, the sad truth is that only a Commissioner can give the Spectrum Task Force the “star power” it needs to reassure everyone that serious work continues along multiple fronts.
More below . . . .
Not that Baker brings only star power. To the contrary, as a former head of the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), the Administrative agency charged with managing federal spectrum use, Commissioner Baker is uniquely qualified to head up the task force. Everyone recognizes that federal spectrum reform, for the benefit of federal and non-federal users alike, is critical to long-term spectrum sustainability. Baker would bring personal knowledge of how the complicated and often obscure federal spectrum management system works, and can thus shape recommendations that open more federal spectrum to commercial use without short changing the federal government on spectrum resources needed for the future.
More importantly, Baker would bring her wealth of personal relationships with both federal spectrum managers and Republicans on the Hill to the often complicated task of persuading the various federal agencies to work cooperatively on spectrum reform. As a Commissioner, Baker would bring a gravitas that would force political appointees in other agencies to engage in the spectrum reform process in a serious way. As someone who previously served on the federal side, Baker can command respect from career federal spectrum mangers as someone who understands their issues and speaks to them in their language. The importance of this cannot be overestimated, as no federal spectrum reform can truly succeed without cooperation from the agencies that must implement the changes.
For Genachowski, appointing Baker would have two political advantages. First, it would underscore that spectrum reform is, indeed, bipartisan. House Telecom Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (R-MI) have repeatedly stated that they hope for bipartisan spectrum reform legislation. Appointing Baker to head the Spectrum Task Force would serve as a visible reminder that Democratic and Republican members of FCC share the same priorities in making more spectrum available for wireless broadband and public safety. Sending this message to a Republican House through a Republican messenger can only help Genachowski in moving his legislative agenda forward.
More importantly, it provides a solution to Genachowski’s spectrum politics dilemma. Appointing Baker to an official position as head of the task force would allow Commissioner Baker to serve as a spokesperson for all the other aspects of the spectrum reform agenda, leaving Genachowski free to remain focused on his campaign to push legislation through Congress. Such a high profile appointment would reassure those concerned that Genachowski’s personal focus on incentive auctions does not mean that the rest of the spectrum agenda has stalled. Appointing Baker Chair of the Spectrum Task force would essentially make her a second spectrum spokesperson for the FCC, freeing Genachowski to focus on incentive auctions without creating any negative implications from this focus. Baker’s public speeches on spectrum show both an enthusiasm for real spectrum reform and an understanding of its many working parts, making her an ideal spokesperson for the FCC’s overall spectrum reform agenda.
Some may object that Genachowski and Baker do not always agree on specific policy choices, as evidenced by the debate over network neutrality. But the bulk of these potential disagreements lie outside of the technical reforms that are the focus of the spectrum task force and the spectrum reform agenda. Issues such as the need for data roaming or spectrum caps, where disagreements are more likely to arise, are properly the subject of competition policy and are unrelated to the question of how to make more spectrum available. Because Baker and Genachowski share the common goal in enhancing availability of spectrum from broadband and other uses, and generally share the same pragmatic philosophy about how to achieve these goals, they should easily be able to define the scope of the task force and its procedures to prevent any unnecessary friction on issues where genuine disagreement may emerge.
Rarely in Washington does the right policy choice align so precisely with the right political choice. Chairman Genachowski should move quickly to take advantage of this unique convergence to appoint Commissioner Baker as chair of the Spectrum Task Force.
Stay tuned . . . .
I agree Commissioner Baker would make a fine Chair of the Spectrum Task Force, taking nothing away from the current co-chairs. I’m not sure it’s needed, though.You know more about the politics than I, but if the Chairman can’t focus on incentive auctions and other spectrum issues, I suggest he focus less on incentive auctions. Instead of cherry-picking stats from Cisco marketing literature used to drive the sale of its core-network hardware, he might instead look at two mobile data demand forecasts in the FCC’s possession that, unlike Cisco’s, are independently prepared. One is by Yankee Group and the other is by Coda – both independent research firms. Details on these can be found in the FCC’s October 2010 Technical Paper, Mobile Broadband: The Benefits of Additional Spectrum. Those forecasts point to lower demand than does Cisco. Crisis averted, more time to work on other things. Gives the white space folks more time to get established. Proceed with the pursuit of incentive auctions if that is desired, but don’t panic. We don’t enter an event horizon if someone can’t view talking dogs on YouTube during peak usage under a flat-rate plan. While we’re all taking a deep breath, let’s start an inventory, just in case broadcasters don’t rush headlong into the incentive auctions.
I agree with Steve, and note that the real data that AT&T has now published actually indicate both lower current mobile data traffic and much slower future growth than Cisco’s forecasts (arguably even a bit lower than Yankee and Coda). Dave Burstein is doing a great job in pointing out that we have a spectrum drama not a spectrum crisis.
So what happens if Sprint now decides to choose between LightSquared and Clearwire and lets one of them fail? After all that not only makes sense in terms of conserving Sprint’s own financial resources (if LightSquared can’t come up with $14B on its own and Clearwire can’t find any other source of funding) but is also an excellent way to discredit the argument that’s being used to justify the AT&T/T-Mobile deal. How much credibility will the Chairman’s argument have left at that point?