Sharing The Airwaves
October 19, 2005
Dawn Holian is Common Cause’s director of media research and public education. Before joining Common Cause in 2005, she served as the associate director for media policy at the Campaign Legal Center, and as the managing director and research director for the Alliance for Better Campaigns.
Radio frequencies were jammed. Cell phone towers were wiped out. Government officials had to resort to sending runners back and forth in order to share information.
These are just a few of the communication failures that left police and first responders throughout the Gulf Coast deaf, dumb and blind in those critical hours and days following Hurricane Katrina. And the blame for the communication breakdowns rests squarely at the feet of our legislators in Congress, who have capitulated to the broadcast industry on spectrum issues for far too long.
So what do television broadcasters have to do with emergency communication? They both use the airwaves—also known as spectrum—to operate. Those airwaves are public property just like our national parks and forests. Congress originally gave TV broadcasters licenses to use the best airwaves: what former Federal Communications Chairman Reed Hundt called the “beachfront property on the Cyber Sea.”
But technological advances now allow more efficient use of the airwaves, and giving the “beachfront property” to television broadcasters no longer makes sense. So in 1996, Congress gave each television station a second license in order to facilitate the transition to digital broadcasting. The plan was that, within a short time, they would switch over to digital broadcasting entirely and return their “beachfront property” so that those airwaves could be reallocated for other purposes—including public safety.
But don’t think for a moment that this was a bad deal for the broadcasters. In fact, it was a sweetheart deal that then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole called “a giant corporate welfare program.” Broadcasters didn’t pay a single penny for those licenses, which could have brought in more than $70 billion for the public treasury if they had been auctioned off. And what’s more, broadcasters used their lobbying clout to insert a loophole in the law delaying the return of their “beachfront property” indefinitely—effectively giving them squatters’ rights on our public airwaves.
Not even the communication problems that occurred on 9/11 could move broadcasters to give up access to the airwaves in favor of public safety organizations. John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy and a member of the 9/11 Commission, expressed his frustration earlier this year, before the Hurricane Katrina disaster: “It is really scandalous in a way. One of [the 9/11 Commission’s] recommendations was to free up a range of radio frequencies not being used. That hasn’t happened because they are being held onto by the broadcast industry.”
Congress has an opportunity this week to undo some of its previous damage when they once again take up legislation dealing with the digital television transition. Insiders expect that Congress will set a so-called hard deadline for the return of the “beachfront” airwaves—but many questions remain about how those airwaves will then be used. Clearly, one priority must be fulfilling the promise made to our first responders nearly a decade ago to give them increased access to the airwaves.
Another priority should be to ensure that some airwaves are set aside for public use. Making a portion of the airwaves available for public use will not only provide opportunities to build new and different communication tools for emergency workers, but also help communities bridge the digital divide and better communicate with themselves.
Public-use airwaves can be used to build community wireless networks that spread high-speed Internet access over a wide area. Those wireless networks allow police, fire and rescue personnel to easily download street maps and floor plans of buildings, utilize text messaging, transmit audio and video, and share up-to-the-second information. They are also much more stable than traditional phone and radio communications because their infrastructure is decentralized. Even if a storm or terrorist attack takes out one part of the network, the other pieces remain operable.
Wireless networks also provide low-cost, high-speed Internet access to communities—a major plus for small businesses, as well as low-income, minority and rural families. They help bridge the digital divide by connecting disadvantaged schools and neighborhood community centers with universities and libraries worldwide. And they give all community members access to the Internet—the place where so many of us turn to find jobs, to get health information, to research the products we buy and to communicate with our friends and family.
But many in Congress don’t want to allocate any spectrum for public use, in spite of the fact that “we the people” own those airwaves. Instead, they want to auction off this valuable resource to cell phone and other wireless technology companies, who will in turn charge us high premiums for access to their services. We should not allow corporate interests to subvert public safety or to cheat some Americans out of the benefits of advanced communications technology.
Congress’ decisions about the public airwaves ought to be made with the best interests of the public in mind. Public safety and the public good must be placed ahead of the profit-driven demands of broadcasters and telecommunication companies.