CPB study to examine public policy implications of spectrum auctions

By Dru Sefton

CPB has initiated a six-month research project on the upcoming broadcast spectrum auctions that will culminate with publication of a white paper.

Mark Erstling, s.v.p. system development, told board members at headquarters April 22 that the paper will have “the same scale and importance” as CPB’s 2012 report to Congress on alternative funding for the system, which it delivered last June.

The study will examine multiple complex issues surrounding the auctions, such as preservation of universal service of public broadcasting to all Americans; the role of Community Service Grant policy in spectrum discussions; how much noncommercial spectrum may be necessary in large and overlap markets; the financial implications for individual stations as well as the system as a whole; and station responsibilities to their communities.

The intended audience for the paper, Erstling said, will be the CPB Board, station boards and management “who are making the tough decisions” regarding the future of their spectrum; policymakers in state and federal government and other key stakeholders; and the public.

The Association of Public Television Stations is assembling a board-level task force to conduct market studies on the auctions, and PBS is undertaking engineering studies and operational assessments, Erstling told the CPB Board.

He anticipates the CPB white paper effort will require “significant resources” for consultants, surveys and research and CPB staff time. He did not provide cost estimates.

Funding for “some kind of spectrum analysis” has been in CPB’s business plan for the past year, said Vincent Curren, CPB c.o.o., but APTS and PBS are focused on what’s happening at the station level. It’s become clear that  “nobody was looking at the broader public service media implications. We think there’s a significant need for that. We saw no choice but to step in.”

One significant reason for doing the white paper, Curren noted, “is for CPB to play an influential role to help influence policy discussions at the FCC. They are aware of  the importance of maintaining universal public media service; we are confident there is an understanding of that at the staff level,” Curren said. “But for the full FCC, it’s helpful to have a report from us saying this is critical to pay attention to.”

Also, he added, entrepreneurs are beginning to approach stations to negotiate agreements that would provide cash now for spectrum later. “This raises all kinds of complex regulatory issues,” he said. “People see a lot of money sloshing around. This is the kind of opportunity that people get very creative about capturing that cash. So we’re having to deal with that.”

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