Testifying at an FCC oversight hearing hosted by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler pledged that the FCC would make "special efforts" to accommodate low power television (LPTV) licensees that could be displaced in the post-incentive auction channel repacking process. Wheeler also defended the FCC's actions in the wake of President Obama's November 2014 pronouncement in favor of Title II regulation of broadband services, maintaining that the FCC followed processes used by both Democrats and Republicans and that it is not unusual for White House officials to meet with leaders of independent federal agencies.
Wednesday's hearing featured appearances by all five FCC commissioners and touched on a wide variety of topics that included universal service reform and the FCC's set-top box rulemaking proposal as well as last year's Open Internet order and the upcoming incentive auction. Addressing the FCC's decision to pursue a Title II regulatory track for broadband, Wheeler told lawmakers he was aware of FCC staff concerns about "a thin record" for supporting Title II, which generated "fulsome debate" in the weeks preceding the FCC's vote on the Open Internet order. Wheeler also told Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) that he ordered a pause in staff efforts to draft the Open Internet order for the purpose of "enriching the record" and because he feared the FCC would otherwise face the risk of lawsuits. As he cited the example of a high-level meeting between FCC Chairman Mark Fowler and President Ronald Reagan three decades ago, Wheeler stressed that the FCC routinely communicates with "the White House, Congress and everybody."
Meanwhile, Wheeler sought to allay concerns that the FCC was deaf to the plight of LPTVs in the wake of the incentive auction. Although he reminded lawmakers that Congress did not provide for the protection of secondary-status LPTVs during the channel repacking process, Wheeler promised that the FCC would assist affected LPTV licensees by helping them find new channels or by allowing them to share frequencies that could result in an upgrade to fully protected and primary Class A status. Wheeler also denied claims that the FCC intends to prioritize high-value urban TV stations over rural stations during the repacking process. Emphasizing that the FCC needs to assess the repacking process as a whole and that spectrum moves in one market could easily impact another, Wheeler said all stations "are interconnected, which means there is not one higher ranking . . . than another."