Speaking at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) State Leadership Conference on Tuesday, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly sympathized with broadcast industry concerns over the upcoming incentive auction.  Those issues include the post-auction repacking of TV stations that remain on the air and the sufficiency of the $1.75 billion allocated by Congress to reimburse broadcasters for their relocation costs.  As he promised to be “open minded and proactive” on these issues, O’Rielly stressed that “these concerns are unlikely to be considered and addressed until the Commission and Congress can examine the lay of the post-auction land.” 

While emphasizing that the “reverse” phase of the incentive auction will commence as scheduled on March 29—barring a D.C. Circuit Court order on pending low power TV litigation or a “substantiated” request from a “significant party” whose absence from the auction would impact its success—O’Rielly acknowledged the continuing disagreement between the broadcast and wireless industries over the FCC’s 39-month deadline for completion of broadcast channel repacking in the wake of the incentive auction.  While the NAB and its members believe the FCC should wait until the auction is finished to set the repacking deadline, T-Mobile and other wireless carriers contend that the 39-month deadline is sufficient and that any postponement would delay deployment of new wireless broadband services to customers.  O’Rielly, a dissenter against the FCC’s decision to impose the 39-month deadline, emphasized that the availability of tower crews needed by broadcasters to complete repacking will prove be a critical element in determining broadcaster adherence to the deadline.  As he maintained that he has been working (with little success thus far) to obtain data on the number of tower crews that will be available nationwide, O’Rielly emphasized that “such information—which I have been unable to obtain, along with the exact number of stations to be moved—will be necessary to determine an accurate timeline.” 

O’Rielly also promised to support Congressional allocation of additional funds beyond the $1.75 billion already earmarked for relocation “if absolutely necessary.”  Meanwhile, with respect to the forward phase of the auction, during which wireless carrier bids will be accepted for the spectrum surrendered by broadcasters, O’Rielly cast doubt on the FCC’s wisdom in reserving 30 MHz of spectrum in each market for bids by entities not ranked among the four national mobile carriers.  Pointing out that the 30 MHz reserve would benefit Comcast and similarly-situated players that lack a national wireless spectrum footprint, O’Rielly questioned:  “should the Commission really give a preference . . . . to a sufficiently capitalized, major market participant that is listed in the top 50 of the Fortune 500 list?”