By Chris Daly
Let me see if I have this right:
The Federal Communications Commission is planning to hold an auction to sell off chunks of bandwidth in the electromagnetic spectrum. Specifically, the FCC is proposing to sell off the segment that was used for decades by television broadcasters, in the era when they sent their signals through the air (or through the “ether,” as an earlier generation referred to it) and their viewers pulled those signals out of the air with set-top or roof-top antennas.
That seems like a fine idea.
The part I don’t get is this: As I explain in my new book, Covering America, (see chapter 7), the FCC was established in 1927 to represent the interests of the American people as a whole.
The idea was that the American people had an undivided ownership stake in the spectrum and that they therefore needed a way to manage it for the public benefit. In its early years, the FCC designated certain frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum for radio transmissions; after WWII, the agency did the same for television. In doing so, the FCC essentially gave broadcasters that precious public resource.
Now, the broadcasters want to be reimbursed for their “loss” of the spectrum that they have been using for free for decades — never mind that they never owned it.
Today’s Times front-page story puts it this way:
The measure would be a rare instance of the government compensating private companies with the proceeds from an auction of public property — broadcast licenses — once given free.