Op-Eds


Squandering a National Resource

By James Tuthill, San Francisco Chronicle

Radio spectrum is more than just a valuable resource: it's essential for the public welfare. It's used for cell phone communications, satellite and WiFi data transmissions, by emergency and medical personnel, by law enforcement and by our defense forces. Its prime value is its capability to provide instant communications anywhere. But the amount of spectrum available is limited.

A large portion of our nation's spectrum is used by broadcast television. A new public interest standard would establish that when broadcasters charge cable television subscribers for what once was free, they no longer serve the public interest, and their spectrum can be reclaimed for the public good.

In its proposed National Broadband Plan, which the Federal Communications Commission filed with Congress two months ago, the FCC suggests that it reclaim 120 MHz of spectrum used by the broadcasters and instead be used for new wireless broadband services. This is nothing short of a gold mine in spectrum - imagine how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs could put it to better use. In the 2008 federal auction of spectrum, cell phone companies paid $250 million, $484 million and $884 million alone for just 12Mhz of spectrum in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York respectively. At comparable prices, the 120 MHz is worth tens of billions of dollars - billions that rightly belong to the public.

But the TV broadcasters paid nothing for their spectrum used for over-the-air broadcasts. They - with the support of their congressional allies - aren't going to let go of it easily, despite the fact that under federal law they do not own the spectrum they use.

Broadcasters are now moving aggressively to charge cable viewers for programs that are provided free over-over-the-air. This isn't good news for cable subscribers who have seen cable rates rise faster than inflation for years. Today, when 90 percent of U.S. television households receive their TV programs via cable, not over-the-air, a new public interest standard for the free use of spectrum by broadcasters is required. The standard under which they were given the free use of spectrum was developed in the middle of the last century before cable television even existed, and it needs to be updated to reflect tremendous changes in technology and viewer habits since then.

The TV broadcasters will say, despite the fact that they are demanding more money from cable subscribers, that they still serve the public interest by providing news, weather and other public service information. That argument was true years ago, but with the emergence of 24-hour news and weather channels on cable and satellite, and with Internet access to hundreds if not thousands of news sites, and mobile access to social networking sites like Twitter, that argument has collapsed.

The old public interest model for free broadcast spectrum is broken. Broadcasters are hoarding a scarce and precious resource that they do not own, and the public is paying the price in billions in lost revenue and foregone opportunities for new wireless services. Under a new standard of serving the public, the FCC could reclaim spectrum when a broadcaster's license comes up for renewal and auction that spectrum in the marketplace to the highest and best user. That would efficiently use an irreplaceable national resource.

James Tuthill worked in the telecommunications industry for some 20 years and now lectures on telecommunications, broadcast and Internet law at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

6/18/2010