Pubcasters endorse point systems for assigning reserved spectrum
Originally published in Current, Feb. 8, 1999
By Jacqueline Conciatore
Public broadcasters are suggesting that the FCC institute a point system to choose among competing applicants for noncommercial radio and TV stations.
The FCC's choice of a new comparative system has immediate relevance for the numerous public radio stations that have had permit applications sitting in limbo for years, stymied by the Commission's failure to replace its defunct comparative hearings with a new process. The backlog has grown in recent years, as expansion-minded religious broadcasters have filed record numbers of applications, often competing with pubcasters.
The commission solicited comments on a new system last October. It proposed either a point or lottery system, saying comparative hearings had proven costly, time-consuming, and arbitrary in effect. The FCC also asked for opinions about handling competing requests for commercial spectrum when the applicants include noncommercial broadcasters.
About 100 pubcasters, religious and other broadcasters, and citizens filed responses. National Religious Broadcasters, which represents more than 1000 Christian radio and TV stations and producers, didn't comment, but will file a reply comment in March, said the group's attorney, Lawrence Secrest.
At least two religious chains--Calvary Chapel and Educational Media Foundation, each among the most active applicants for noncommercial frequencies--have suggested a lottery system.
Public broadcasters argue that lotteries amount to abdication of any attempt to serve the public interest through spectrum allocation. And in practice, awarding permits out of a hat would favor those who file the most often, namely a few religious and other broadcasters who are peppering the country with satellite-fed outlets. Lotteries would "create a free-for-all in which applicants are given an incentive to file, not to serve a particular community, nor even to achieve an educational purpose, but simply to obtain a chance to acquire spectrum," advised the Station Resource Group. "In a worst case scenario, a lottery winner with spectrum it could not use could count on assigning it and at least recovering all costs." In a joint comment, NPR, CPB and America's Public Television Stations said lotteries could encourage speculation.
SRG and other pubcasting groups say they all favor a point system designed to ensure or encourage local service, diversity of ownership and programming, and service in areas that have little or none. But their separate comments suggest means of achieving those ends, reflecting the priorities of their constituencies. The National Federation of Community Broadcasters, for example, suggests that the FCC award points for origination of local programming and airtime given the public.
The FCC is seeking to reduce its backlog of mutually exclusive noncom TV and radio applications, which numbered almost 800 (most on the radio side) last fall. In the calendar year 1998 alone, the commission estimated, it would receive 750 noncom applications, about 500 of them mutually exclusive.
In its rulemaking proposal, the commission admired the efficiency of lotteries, but it noted that they would have to give "significant preference" favoring minority applicants and discouraging concentration of ownership. To these ends, the commission proposed weighting the lottery, in most cases two to one.
A point system would have the obvious advantage of not leaving decisions to chance, the commission said. It proposed a system that would award points for local diversity, for introducing first or second services in a community and for proposing to serve an area or population that's at least 10 percent larger than competing bids.
The pubcasting groups also supported the FCC's proposal to require the winners of a lottery or point system selection to hold on to their stations for a minimum period, during which they would have to certify their continued eligibility for the preferences and points they received. The holding period is meant to discourage speculation.
For nonreserved spectrum
Congress's 1997 order that the FCC adopt an auction process for commercial licenses forces the commission to devise a way to deal with noncommercial applications for commercial spectrum. Pubcasting groups variously recommend that the commission either:
- change spectrum allocation from unreserved to reserved in cases where the noncom applicant can demonstrate need--if it would provide a first or second noncommercial educational (NCE) service, for example.
- adopt a separate track for noncom applicants--once they apply, the channel should become a reserved channel. This is an option most strongly endorsed by NPR/CPB/APTS. They suggest a limit on the number of NCE applications an entity may file under the special process.
- subject all applicants to a comparative point process; if the NCE applicants are winnowed out, then the FCC could undertake an auction.
The next step is for interested parties to submit reply comments, due March 15. Then FCC staffers will make policy recommendations to commissioners.
. To Current's home page . Earlier news: FCC launches proceeding to decide how to assign noncommercial spectrum, October 1998. . Later news: Commission selects point system, 2000. . Related document: FCC's 1998 notice of proposed rulemaking.
Web page created Feb. 15, 1999 and revised May 8, 2000
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