Ex-senator Gordon Smith now represents broadcasters as voice for free, local TV
By Cecilia Kang,
Gordon Smith believes few things are more American than a square meal with peas, carrots and corn. Of course the former senator from Oregon may be biased, since his family supplies much of the nation's frozen veggies.
But the veteran politician and businessman understands the power of a good message. And now, as the top evangelist for broadcasters, he's preaching about another red-white-and-blue ideal: free and local television.
Broadcast TV may be on the decline, but Smith asks what the nation would do without the evening news, weather alerts and live broadcasts of the World Series. Let's not forget how important those local television spots have been for political campaigns, he adds.
Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), is taking that pitch to former Capitol Hill colleagues, warning that the federal government's plan to bolster wireless networks could end up darkening signals for hundreds of stations around the country. The administration says television channels should be sold to wireless companies that will build networks for a new generation of Internet-connected smartphones and tablets.
To make that work, the government promises to give broadcasters a cut of proceeds from auctions of their airwaves. The plan has the backing of wireless carriers, gadgetmakers and Internet firms.
But Smith isn't biting just yet.
"We don't think this is an either-or debate, and we aren't saying we are against voluntary auctions," Smith said. "But we want to hold harmless those who don't want to participate."
President Obama said Thursday in a speech in Michigan that the federal government plans to raise $27.8 billion from auctions, and that would include a great deal of high-end, beachfront spectrum held by television broadcasters. Those airwaves penetrate walls and trees, making it less likely that calls will get dropped or apps will fail.
Obama says the money would pay for new networks that the economy needs to leap forward with new high-tech economies. But as they stand, the nation's wireless networks aren't robust enough to support a flood of new devices hitting the market, the president and the Federal Communications Commission have warned.
"To attract the best jobs and newest industries, we've got to out-innovate, out-educate, out-build and out-hustle the rest of the world," Obama said at Northern Michigan University on Tuesday as he unveiled a plan to blanket the nation with mobile high-speed networks.
Experts say the government plan is complicated and may prove too ambitious.
Gordon Smith could be its biggest obstacle.
Harking back to his farming roots in northeast Oregon, he says spectrum is the "seed corn" of television stations. That means it's the foundation of new business plans being drawn up by stations that want viewers to watch "Jeopardy!" and "American Idol" on mobile devices from local signals. They also plan to experiment with multi-casting and say consumers who are leaving cable for Internet entertainment are supplementing their viewing habits with good old-fashioned over-the-air TV.
The 1,200 television stations Smith represents aren't jumping at the chance to sell spectrum they've been leasing from the government. Some TV stations are eager to sell airwaves they aren't using, but many station owners - including the biggest networks - say they've got a use for those channels. And without a Plan B, that puts much of Obama's strategy for a wireless nation in question.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) has introduced a bill that would pave the way for the government plan, but experts say it will be a fight to get it through.
"The president's proposal gives further impetus and direction to Congress, which was already gearing up for a major legislative push on spectrum," said Rebecca Arbogast, a tech policy analyst for the investment firm Stifel Nicolaus. "But we expect many lawmakers will have their own priorities, subjecting legislation to changes along the way, and the final outcome remains in doubt."
Smith knows how Washington works from the inside. He served 12 years in the Senate, most of that time on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He was chairman of the high-tech task force for the committee, where he sowed his oats in telecom and tech policy. After he lost his reelection bid to Jeff Merkley in 2008, he was restricted for two years from lobbying members of Congress.
But he's back in action, with plans to blanket the Hill and old friends on the committee.
"My mother always said, the best way to ruin a story is to tell the other side," he said in his spacious mahogany-and-hunter-green-toned office in Dupont Circle.
The power of a simple message could be boiled down to success in elections. Where do most people view campaign ads? Over free television, he said. Want to get elected? You'll need TV.
"I placed an Internet ad when I last ran," he said, "and about 30 people clicked on it."
Mom knew what she was talking about. Jessica Smith comes from the Udall family, about the closest thing the West has to the Kennedy political dynasty. Gordon's cousin Tom Udall is a Democratic U.S. senator from New Mexico, and cousin Mark Udall, also a Democrat, is a senator from Colorado. Another cousin, Morris Udall of Arizona, ran unsuccessfully against Jimmy Carter in the presidential primaries.
Smith is a Republican, and so was his father, Milan Smith, who served as assistant agriculture secretary for President Dwight Eisenhower. The farm connection runs deep. Chances are if you've had a bowl of Campbell's Soup, Smith Frozen Foods chopped the vegetables.
With 10 children in a house in Bethesda, the family grew up debating politics and watching Walter Cronkite on the RCA in the living room.
With impeccable senatorial hair, Smith speaks plainly and has smiling eyes, even when he's telling you you're wrong. His manner has helped to build his reputation as a moderate Republican, and he has strong ties on both sides of the aisle from the Energy and Commerce Committee.He's working them to ensure that broadcasters who want to auction airwaves get their fair due. They don't want to be forced to sell. And they don't want their channels repackaged and moved to junk spectrum.
"Gordon is a businessman and a politician who understands how to navigate the halls of Congress to remind people that we've been through this all recently with the digital transition and we're still feeling it," said David Barrett, president of Hearst Television and a board member of the NAB.
Some observers wonder whether Smith is playing a game of poker, trying to get the government to ante up more money for broadcasters in auction.
On the contrary, says the 55-year-old who was trained as a lawyer, business is too good for broadcasters to cash out and walk away. Plus, they are dedicated to a public mission to supply local news and entertainment.
Anticipating a spectrum battle ahead, the NAB - recently bolstered when CBS and Fox Broadcasting agreed to rejoin the trade group - pulled Smith in as a veteran of Capitol Hill who could make sure their greatest assets weren't taken away or sold at unfavorable terms.
"The devil is in the details," Barrett said.
But Smith's fight could get drowned out by static from another front: trendy wireless and gadget companies that say the government has to pick between old media and new, multibillion-dollar technologies.
About 10 to 15 percent of the nation watches over-the-air television. If you live in New York or San Francisco, chances are you've got an often-frustrating relationship with your cellphone because of dropped calls and Internet service.
In his State of the Union address, Obama promised to bring high-speed wireless Internet access to 98 percent of all homes. His administration sees it as an economic imperative: the underlying infrastructure for big dreams and businesses built on smartphones and tablets. Schools will use e-books to learn better, the president says, and doctors will use handheld devices to instantly send X-rays to specialists around the world.
The broadcasters, then, are blocking the path to progress.
Steve Largent, president of the wireless trade group CTIA, calls wireless broadband "the great equalizer." And Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro scolds broadcasters for "squatting" on airwaves that could be put to better use.
But some public interest groups look to the government plans with skepticism.
"You'd think mobile broadband could cure cancer, too," Smith said with sarcasm.
Why wireless connections instead of more robust and faster Internet lines into homes and businesses? And how can consumers be sure airwaves won't go to big carriers, who continually increase costs for consumers? AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the nation's biggest mobile network operators, bought the most airwaves in the government's last auction. They are now positioned to lead as tablets and new smartphones hit 4G networks.
The real problem, public interest groups say, is getting people to use the Internet when prices for service continue to climb.
The resistance from broadcasters adds to other hurdles for wireless broadband plans, observers say. The government's plan is complicated and calls for fire, police and paramedics to build out a national interoperable network. Observers question how public safety officials can pull that off. And even if Obama gets legislation he needs to create voluntary "incentive auctions," carriers would not be able to bid on airwaves until next year at the earliest, experts say.
In the government's fast-forward push to bolster wireless networks, Smith's biggest goal is to get lawmakers to slow down.
"Let's consider all the facts first," he said. "We need an inventory of what other spectrum is available. We need to really see if there is a spectrum crisis."
And in Washington, sometimes the most effective weapon is the pause button.