Analog airwaves and the public interest

June 13th, 2007

Future uses for analog TV spectrum (in the 700 MHz band) are the topic of a Senate hearing tomorrow. Missing from the agenda, according to David S. Isenberg: Anyone “representing the public’s interest” in allocating a channel or two to unlicensed spectrum.

“Avowed free-market capitalist” Andy Kessler made the case a while back for why a just-sell-it-to-Verizon approach serves neither the public nor open markets.

…auctioning off this 700-MHz block is so last century. The lower the frequency, the further signals can travel without degrading, better to penetrate homes and offices. This is a desirable chunk of spectrum. But why not just make it an unlicensed band? Entrepreneurs will come up with more interesting services than cellphone operators who think text messaging is somehow worth 10 cents a pop.

Broadcasters worry, with some justification, that opening up spectrum to everyone puts TV reception at risk from interference. That issue needs to be resolved, and the transition to digital TV in 2009 needs to be protected. But Washington needs to look at the long term, from every side, before they go and auction off beachfront spectrum forever. If broadcasters can’t co-exist with free uses, then we need to examine the possibility that too much spectrum is devoted to broadcasting.

Those airwaves belong to the public, and some well-informed members thereof are clamoring for more access. To do what? We don’t exactly know. We didn’t know we needed Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed spectrum, until someone invented it. The public at large is unaware of the debate—which creates ideal conditions for spectrum monopolists to add to their holdings and extract rents from a captive public.

• Links:, Kessler

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