It's About Time!

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OK, I admit it, this is one of those “I told you so” columns, but isn’t it amazing that it’s taken this long to start a serious policy debate about why we are still giving away all that “ocean front” broadcast spectrum?

It’s finally happened. Folks are finally asking some long-overdue questions about why so much of the “best” spectrum available is being squandered on multiple broadcast channels in each community. It’s about time.

A vast majority of television viewers in the United States no longer rely on broadcast, over-the-air television reception. They rely on cable and satellite MVPD service. (By the way, unless there is a reason to, I don’t distinguish between “telco” operation of a cable system and “cable” ownership of that infrastructure…they are both “cable” systems despite all the policy and marketing hoohah making believe they are different.)

So if most folks are not dependent on broadcast television spectrum use, and that spectrum is owned by the public, and it could be put to better use, why isn’t it? I’ve been asking that question in this column and its forerunners for decades!

Some of the standard responses are now pure silliness; first there is the “localism” argument. Fine. Let’s see a study of how many hours of truly “local” programming most “local broadcasters” actually produce. Take back the spectrum of all those who fall below, say, 25% primetime daily. That would be virtually every broadcaster in the country!

The second response you always hear is “local emergency” coverage. I call it the “tornado” justification. But that one doesn’t fly for long either. Think about the “emergency broadcasting system.” How does it work? All the stations trigger an alert, then most of them announce what channel you should turn to for emergency messages and then they turn off! So you don’t really need all those broadcast channels showing reruns or home shopping for “emergency” reasons.. they tell you to stop watching them anyway. All you would need is an education campaign telling folks which one or two channels they should tune to when there is an emergency.

Of course the real broadcaster argument, other than that there are some folks who still do rely on “free” broadcast television, is that it is their spectrum and the government has no right to now take it back and use it for other good purposes. Well, sorry, that doesn’t get very far either. It’s the Public spectrum, and the licenses granted for its use are time limited and specifically not granted as an ownership right in perpetuity. As to those who still rely on broadcasting, they can be served in other ways, such as vouchers for MVPD, and the money made by reclaiming and reusing the broadcast spectrum would be more than sufficient to cover that bill. The voucher recipients would benefit as well by getting far more educational, instructional and government services programming than they do now.

Is any of this likely? Well, we have an FCC these days that really does look at “facts” sometimes. And the facts seem to favor reclaiming some, if not all of the broadcast spectrum. But there is also another fact: politically, this is a very difficult way to go. The broadcasters, at the very least, will have to be paid off to get them to relinquish “their” spectrum, and doomsday scenarios, which seem to be so popular today, will flourish. But could the Commission at least recommend a limited, compensated reclamation of some of the spectrum? Yes, and it would be about time!

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