A fight for the public interest is currently taking place beneath the headlines. It’s so deep beneath the headlines, in fact, that it’s hardly being covered at all. Part of the reason lies in the fact that the conflict is a complicated one, and most media outlets tend to shy away from attempting to explain issues that require readers (or viewers, or listeners) to pay careful attention to anything. A second problem is that the conflict involves the media companies themselves, and absolutely nothing in America gets covered worse than the things that media companies want to accomplish in Congress without media attention.
Back in the ’90s, when the broadcast and cable industry fought over what would become the Telecommunications Act of 1996—which destroyed local radio in America—the legislation was never once mentioned on any nightly news program, save once on “Nightline.” The only network ”person” to mention the act in prime time was—are you ready?—cartoon character Lisa Simpson.
This new battle involves something called “white spaces” in the broadcast spectrum, which exist unused between television channels. (Back in the days when TVs had dials, these were known as “static.”) The Federal Communications Commission licensed these “white spaces” to media companies, in most cases, for a fraction of their actual value. The argument for giving these licenses away so cheaply rests on the need to use the spectrum for the public interest. Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron White once explained that, “the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a radio frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens…. It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.”
That’s the theory, anyway. The facts, however, are quite different. The license renewal system for these mega-corporations has become a virtual rubber-stamp process, according to Commissioner Michael Copps, with little to none of their public interest obligations even being taken seriously, much less fulfilled. Univision—the Spanish language network—actually went so far as to claim that a soap opera with two 11-year-old actors fulfilled its obligation to provide children’s educational programming. Companies are likely to try do away entirely with the FCC’s ability to regulate them at all, as we discussed in a previous column, “The Quest to Save Red Lion.”
But here’s some good news: Not all frequencies on the spectrum have been sold. The unused “white spaces,” and the upcoming national transition away from analog television to digital signals, guarantees that even more will soon be available. In the past, these frequencies remained open in order to provide buffer zones designed to prevent broadcast interference, but technological advances have made these buffers unnecessary. (For more on the technological aspects of this case, take a look at this video from the public interest organization, Freepress.net.)
These unused frequencies may be able to provide something America desperately needs: a nationwide, low-cost, high-speed Internet connection. But the same companies that find the current situation so profitable want to make sure that no one and nothing gets in the way of their gravy train—and are therefore fighting it.
It’s a big arena with a lot of contestants. The broadcast behemoths, citizens groups, Google, and other computer and Internet providers, and even Broadway production companies have shown up for battle. And there’s plenty at stake. In New York City, for instance, fully 20 percent of the spectrum will remain unused after the switch to digital television signals. In Dallas-Ft. Worth, the figure is 40 percent, and in places like Juneau, Alaska, it’s nearly 75 percent.
New technologies can use these frequencies to send high-speed Internet services across the country. Google co-founder Larry Page estimates that these frequencies could carry high-speed Internet to underserved rural and urban communities to the Internet at one-tenth the cost of current municipal wi-fi projects.
Now remember that this country ranks 15th in the world in broadband penetration, and note that increasingly, without the Internet, companies, educational systems, and medical facilities are at a disadvantage as knowledge and technological know-how is increasingly spread over a broadband connection. This is truly a recipe for two nations: one of haves and one of have-nots.
Alas, a number of corporations want to prevent this solution from ever reaching the public. As Free Press’s Timothy Karr explains, “The fight over white spaces pits those who have access to spectrum, and want to keep it for themselves, against those who don’t, and want spectrum to be used to serve other purposes as well.”
The broadcasters claim that the use of these frequencies may interfere with existing broadcast signals. Television stations and even big Broadway shows, which use wireless microphones, oppose the use of unassigned frequencies. Their arguments, however, do not stand up to independent scrutiny.
The FCC is currently considering opening up these “white spaces,” and FCC chair Kevin Martin appears to be favorably disposed. It should proceed with all deliberate speed. These white spaces offer a low-cost means of spreading knowledge and advancing democracy, and the beauty of the entire enterprise is that we—the public—already own them.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at http://www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking.
George Zornick is a New York-based writer.