U.S. FCC chief bids broadcasters farewell amid auction concerns

LAS VEGAS, April 10 Wed Apr 10, 2013 5:58pm EDT

LAS VEGAS, April 10 (Reuters) - The top U.S. telecommunications regulator made a fresh plea to broadcasters on Wednesday to play ball with the Federal Communications Commission and the wireless industry in his final visit to their trade show before leaving the agency.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who plans to step down within weeks, spoke at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual trade show in Las Vegas and tried one last time to smooth 0the FCC's bumpy relationship with the industry.

Genachowski, who revealed he used to be a disc jockey known as the "Midnight Rambler," promised continuity in the FCC's regulatory efforts after his departure. The White House has yet to nominate his successor.

During Genachowski's almost four years in charge of the agency, the FCC has repeatedly been at odds with broadcasters. It has started to focus on expanding Internet access across the country and launched a so-called "incentive auction" of spectrum that has pitted broadcasters against the wireless industry.

In the auction, television stations would voluntarily give up airwaves, either going off the air or sharing channels, in return for some of the proceeds from selling that spectrum to wireless companies.

Congress directed the FCC to raise enough cash from the sales to also fund a public-safety program and return some money to the U.S Treasury.

"The opportunity to free up a significant amount of spectrum for all of our smartphones and tablets is a big, big deal," Genachowski said at the NAB show.

But the auction is "not a zero-sum game where any time the mobile industry wins, the broadcasting industry loses. This could be the single biggest opportunity in front of us to grow the content economic pie for everyone."

Broadcasters are trying to adapt to the new digital world where their traditional business model is being challenged by new technologies. The dynamic gave this year's NAB show - which attracted more than 92,000 attendees from the media and entertainment industry - the theme of "metamorphosis."

But concern about broadcasting's future loomed large at the conference, where discussions inevitably turned to what exactly the auction will mean to the industry, where many worry about the threats posed by mobile and cable companies.

Station owners and lawyers quizzed FCC officials, who are now drafting rules for the auctions, on how the process will impact the quality of their signal and the viewers they reach.

Volunteers to give up spectrum would be particularly needed in the biggest 25 to 40 television markets, officials said, but nearly all stations might ultimately be affected as airwaves get rearranged after the auction.

FCC leaders and several wireless industry representatives sought to reassure broadcasters, whose participation is crucial to freeing up more airwaves. Most broadcasters are still weighing whether to participate.

"If the market can't entice you to come off of (your spectrum), that's your right, that's your asset" said Verizon Communications Inc Chief Executive Officer Lowell McAdam in his address to the NAB on Tuesday.

The resolution of the complex spectrum auction, expected to take place in 2014 or later, will now fall to Genachowski's as-yet unnamed successor. The top candidate is considered to be Tom Wheeler, a venture capitalist and former chief of both the wireless and the cable trade groups.

In March, 37 senators under the leadership of Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller urged President Barack Obama to appoint FCC's Jessica Rosenworcel, a former Rockefeller aide who is the junior Democrat at the five-member commission.

Rosenworcel, who has declined comment, received an ovation at NAB when she spoke of the critical role TV and radio play in emergency situations.

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