TV operators say FCC's broadband plan is a threat to homeland security

Published 8 April 2010

The National Association of Broadcasters, a group that represents TV broadcasters, says that what it regards as the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) anti-broadcast, pro-broadband prejudice is a threat to homeland security: in the event of a national disaster, broadband service will overload and shut down because it is not meant to accommodate everyone’s data-communications needs at once

Just a few weeks after Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski pitched the agency’s ambitious National Broadband Plan to Congress, it has come under fire from various broadcast lobbyists who argue that the FCC has long held an anti-broadcast prejudice and that its current broadband plan dismisses the importance of traditional TV broadcasting.

Betsy Schiffman writes in Daily Finance that editorials that have been forwarded to the media by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) — a group that represents TV broadcasters — accuse the FCC of promoting broadband policies that reflect this bizarre anti-broadcast bias.

Tom Butts, editor-in-chief of TV Technology, suggests that the FCC has long conspired against broadcasters. The evidence: Former FCC chairman Reed Hundt’s recent comments at Columbia Business School that the Internet is “pro-democracy” because of its two-way capability. “Reed Hundt … basically admitted … that the commission decided as early as 1994 that broadband should replace broadcast as the ‘common medium’ in the United States,” Butts writes.

Schiffman notes that on the surface, Hundt’s comments do not seem too objectionable — most people would agree that the widespread availability of public information via the Internet probably contributes more to a democracy than TV. Broadcasters, though, are particularly bitter about the proposed National Broadband Plan because it would require them to give back a certain amount of spectrum that would then be reallocated for broadband use.

In another editorial the NAB sent to the media, Tom Wolzien, a consultant and former NBC executive, argues that the FCC’s love affair with broadband is a threat to homeland security. Why? In the event of a national disaster — something along the lines of 9/11 — broadband service will overload and shut down because it is not meant to accommodate everyone’s data-communications needs at once.

The solution, according to Wolzien, is that cell phones should have emergency digital TV receivers built into them to give Americans access to emergency broadcast messages. The FCC has the authority to require these receivers, argues Wolzien.

This is something that the FCC probably should look at,” says Derek Turner, research director at Free Press, a special interest group that advocates media reform. “I agree that broadcasting is a last-resort medium for emergencies, and television is certainly replied upon by the elderly and the poor. That said, it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. I think what we’re talking about here is making efficient use of the public airwaves.”

In the meantime, the FCC is also preparing to defend itself in an appeal filed by Comcast (CMCSA) that questions the FCC’s ability to regulate online content (the case centers around a 2008 FCC ruling that the cable provider can not throttle service of individual users who Comcast deems as using excessive amounts of bandwidth — the so-called “bandwidth hogs”).

The NAB won’t likely sit quietly now. Stay tuned for even more scathing criticism and name-calling as the FCC prepares to present its National Broadband Plan to the Senate,” Schiffman concludes.