Wealth and Want
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Digital TV

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 8: Sharing Culture (pages 117-134)

Private broadcasters grew large and profitable under this arrangement. But over time, as their advertising revenues soared, their public-interest obligations declined. In the 1980s, the FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues. Educational programming also waned. In the 1990s the spread of cell phones created huge new demand for airwaves. Instead of giving frequencies to cell phone companies for free, Congress wisely chose to auction them, raising billions of dollars for the federal treasury. Broadcasters, however, lobbied hard for more free spectrum, and in 1996 Congress gave it to them, ostensibly for digital TV. This was the $70 billion giveaway I described earlier. Today, digital technology makes it possible for “smart” receivers to pick out only the signals they need. Signal interference thus is, or soon could be, a thing of the past — which makes exclusive licenses unnecessary. The airwaves could be an open access commons with virtually no capacity limits, a possibility that makes broadcasters, phone, and cable companies extremely anxious.

Some broadcasters have another idea. They want to privatize the airwaves, with ownership assigned to them. Under this plan, the free licenses they received for digital TV would become permanent entitlements usable for any purpose. Broadcasters could then sell their entitlements to cell phone companies and pocket the windfall. The big winners would be General Electric (NBC), Disney (ABC), and Rupert Murdoch (Fox). Other beneficiaries would include Pat Robertson (Christian Broadcasting Network) and Lowell “Bud” Paxson (Pax TV). When a reporter asked Paxson why he should receive millions of dollars for selling the public’s airwaves, he replied: “I was a farmer and I got lucky. Now people want to build a mall on my farm. God bless America.”

If Congress treated the airwaves as a common asset, it would lease most of them at market rates for limited terms to the highest bidders. The billions of dollars thus raised could buy free airtime for political candidates, fund noncommercial radio and TV, and help sustain the arts.

Alternatively, Congress could turn the airwaves into an open access commons like roads and streets. Using technologies like wi-fi (wireless fidelity), everyone could enjoy high-speed Internet access for almost nothing. As of early 2006, nearly 150 U.S. cities were deploying or planning public wi-fi networks. These efforts are hampered by the fact that the frequencies allotted to wi-fi don’t travel as far, or penetrate buildings as well, as do the frequencies given to broadcasters. A bill to open unused TV channels for wi-fi has been introduced by a group of senators, but it faces stiff opposition from broadcasters, telephone, and cable companies. ... read the whole chapter




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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper