Editorial: Selling public property to the highest bidder

Dec 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell has found another issue to sink his teeth into, and as usual, he has aligned himself with the corporate high rollers, not with the consumers his agency is supposed to protect.
His focus this time is broadcast spectrum, which he wants to throw to the wolves of the open market. Under current federal rules, the use of publicly owned spectrum allocated to broadcasting is restricted to that purpose. But the next generation of wireless applications is waiting in the wings, and high-tech firms are eager to snap up that precious spectrum and allocate it to their own potentially lucrative applications.
Mr. Powell wants to accommodate them by reforming FCC rules to clear the way for television broadcasters to sell off their frequencies to the highest bidder. In typical fashion, he frames his position as though he’s looking out for the public: “What we’re trying to do is create a world where spectrum can get to more productive uses that are more highly valued by consumers.”
He makes the argument that the public airwaves are not being used as efficiently as possible at this time-hardly a revelation, given the television industry’s ongoing struggle to make the transition from analog to digital technology.
He also points out that more than 86 percent of consumers already receive television through satellite or cable delivery. Apparently, in Mr. Powell’s grand vision of the new economy, the other 14 percent-including low-income families and residents of hard-to-reach rural areas-can either subscribe to cable or learn to get along without television.
But his vision really affects all Americans. The availability of free TV remains an important counterbalance to the power of giant cable providers, and its elimination would drastically alter the television landscape. At a time when it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hear independent voices in the broadcast world, consumer advocates are arguing that society needs more free over-the-air TV, not less.
As television grapples with the painful digital transition, it’s easy to point to problems such as underutilized spectrum. And it’s tempting, as Mr. Powell has demonstrated, to put a spin on those problems that might help advance one’s personal agenda.
But the digital transition, though filled with opportunity, is fraught with danger. It’s the worst possible time to be ramming through sweeping regulatory changes and gutting critical consumer protections. It is shamefully irresponsible for Mr. Powell to push for a sell-off of the public airwaves-while spouting rhetoric about public interest, no less-when the future of television remains clouded in uncertainty. If he continues on this path, he might just do irreparable harm to the American public.