Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the OK to auction off some of the public airwaves -- the so-called spectrum up there in the sky, without which none of our TV programs would be possible. The FCC says part of the TV spectrum would be put to better use supporting wireless broadband services.
Apparently, there is not enough room up there in the sky for all the faxing, tweeting, tableting, smartphoning, and other forms of Interneting. I can appreciate that, having attended a family birthday dinner at an expensive restaurant where everybody around the table was on some electronic device except me. Not even the arrival of the birthday cake, with a candle, interrupted the flow of important communication.
The FCC wants to allocate up to 120MHz from TV to the broadband carriers to relieve the crunch. The Congressional Budget Office says the auction should bring in $25 billion to the US Treasury. To make the auction even more palatable, the FCC says the proceeds will be used to build a new national network for law enforcement and public safety and to extend payroll tax and unemployment benefits.
Broadcasters are none too thrilled with giving up spectrum, no matter how good the cause. Help pay for jobless benefits? What are we, eleemosynary institutions? Taking away spectrum is an outrage, they say. It is un-American. Yet another example of government overreach and oppression in the free market.
Broadcasters are not known for their gratitude. They have long since forgotten how the nation gifted them their licenses in the first place.
Lord Thompson said a TV license "is a license to print money." He minimized its value. It's better than a license to frack for gas or pump for oil. And it is a gift that keeps on giving, since the spectrum is inexhaustible.
For the equivalent of peanuts, or the shells, broadcasters have been mining the public airwaves since the Communications Act of 1934 authorized the FCC to award licenses to worthy citizens of the community with the right political connections who agreed to perform in the public interest.
It is a golden goose that never stopped laying eggs, if you ever watched television in its first 75 years of getting a free ride on the public airwaves.
It has always been a truism that what is bad for broadcasting is bad for America. In the next few years, we can expect the broadcasters' flacks and lobbying arms to denounce the auction and make sure it never happens -- no matter how grave the financial crisis or social networking needs. Let them text less.
Giving even 0.001MHz of spectrum back to the country is too much, an encroachment on free speech, or whatever else they will say.
The average American has no idea, and cares less, about what the "public airwaves" mean. Richard C. Wald, a professor at Columbia Journalism School, once defined it for me: "What it means is everybody in the public owns one airwave."
Still, I personally think the auction is a good idea. And while the FCC is looking for ways to help reduce the deficit, I suggest it opens another can of worms by looking into the gratuitous actions of previous commissions. In the changeover from analog to digital TV, for example, the FCC awarded existing license holders the use of six extra channels.
What was that? A reward for the good job they had been doing with the original channels?
Charging a fair market value retroactively for the extra space on the spectrum should go a long way to reducing the national deficit.