Ex-senator Gordon Smith now represents broadcasters as voice for free, local TV

Former U.S. senator Gordon Smith is now the president and chief executive of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Former U.S. senator Gordon Smith is now the president and chief executive of the National Association of Broadcasters. (Juana Arias For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2011

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.

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