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Sand, Sun and Spectrum Policy

Craig Aaron

Summer is no time to talk about spectrum policy. So instead, let’s pretend this is a column about going to the beach.

After returning from the recess, Congress intends to auction off the public airwaves to the cell phone companies for at least $20 billion.

Imagine for a moment that you’re relaxing on the white sand, with a slight breeze in the air, just steps from the clear blue water. This beach is open to the public, but it’s never too crowded. It’s a great place to surf.

But then one day you show up, and there’s a huge brick wall blocking your path to the shore. Without telling anyone, the government sold off this seaside spot to a private developer. Seems they were a little short of cash because of too many tax cuts. If you still want to dip your toes in the water, the new management expects you to pay through the nose.

You’d be pretty angry, right?

Well, that’s exactly what’s happening right now in Congress. Only the valuable public resource being auctioned off isn’t the beach – it’s a prime slice of the public airwaves.

A little background: In 1996, Bill Clinton and Congress handed the nation’s television broadcasters billions of dollars worth of the radio spectrum for free to make the transition from analog to digital broadcasting.

Where broadcasters now have one channel on the air, they’ll soon be able to multicast” four to six channels simultaneously (with no new obligations for public interest programming). This will be especially troubling if the broadcasters succeed in overturning broadcast ownership rules at the FCC. They could potentially control as many as 12 or 18 channels in a single market.

In exchange for this windfall, the broadcasters were supposed to complete the digital transition by the end of next year – and return their old analog spectrum to the government. But they’ve been slow to make the switch, so Congress is preparing to impose a new hard date” of Dec. 31, 2008, at which point your TV will stop working if you don’t subscribe to cable or satellite. 

That’s right. Though nobody has bothered to warn consumers, millions of TVs being sold right now will soon be obsolete. Even though 85 percent of U.S. households subscribe to cable or satellite, Consumers Union estimates that 39 percent of homes have at least one TV relying on over-the-air analog signals. Unless the government pays for a subsidy, tens of millions of viewers will have to cough up at least $50 for a converter or buy new TVs altogether. (Guess which one the electronics industry is counting on.)

But the real scandal of the digital television transition is what’s going to happen to the analog spectrum that’s being vacated by the broadcasters and returned to the government. After returning from the recess, Congress intends to auction off the public airwaves to the cell phone companies for at least $20 billion.

You wouldn’t know from the paltry press coverage of this boondoggle that there’s an alternative. Instead of a one-time fire sale, Congress could open the airwaves to the public and lay the groundwork for universal, broadband access. All they have to do is set aside a portion of the spectrum as unlicensed,” meaning anyone can use it, not just the highest bidder.

The wireless network at your corner coffee shop uses unlicensed spectrum. But right now Wi-Fi operates in the high-frequency junk bands,” which are cluttered with signals from microwave ovens, garage-door openers and baby monitors. The airwaves being taken from the broadcasters, however, are the Malibu of the radio spectrum – fine beachfront property.

Signals at these lower frequencies travel farther at lower powers and can go through obstacles like walls, trees and mountains. That means lower infrastructure costs for broadband providers, encouraging the development of local wireless networks and lowering prices. With more unlicensed spectrum, the Community Internet” networks being set up across the country would be even faster and more reliable. Super-high-speed broadband connections for just $10 a month could be a reality.

Under the current regime, a majority of Americans are unable to get connected or afford the high-priced commercial service offered by the cable and phone companies. The United States has fallen to 16th place worldwide in broadband penetration – behind countries like South Korea, Japan, Canada and Finland. More unlicensed spectrum would help narrow the digital divide.

We’re heading for a world in which all communications – television, telephone, radio and the Web – will be delivered over the Internet. The choice seems clear: We can sell off our public resources to pay for the war, tax cuts or more pork-barrel projects. Or we can invest in the future, bringing the benefits of broadband to all Americans.

But first our lawmakers need to pull their heads out of the sand.

Craig Aaron is senior program director of the national media reform group Free Press and a former managing editor of In These Times.
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