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.
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