The Democracy Papers
Broadcasters: Don't fence those white open spaces
Broadcasters are wrong to block efforts to free up the empty channels between TV stations. Those spaces can offer wireless, high-speed Internet access nationwide.
Special to the Times
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Tom Paine once urged Americans to "recover rights" that had been stolen from them by a British ruling class. His call came at the close of the 18th century, when the casting off of age-old tyrannies was an idea gaining popularity with the citizenry.
Such powerful ideas were sparked by an information revolution that still fuels our democracy Printing presses were cheaply available to the likes of Paine and others for the mass production and distribution of pamphlets that railed against British colonial power.
Thus, when James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and their colleagues wrote the Constitution of the United States, they enshrined protections for a free and freewheeling press that would serve as the nucleus around which popular self-governance would be built.
"Our first object should therefore be, to leave open ... all the avenues to truth," Jefferson explained. "The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press."
Jefferson's call to "open all the avenues" still resonates in the age of the Internet. The avenues we need most desperately today are those that have been shuttered by a controlling class of lobbyists, who tirelessly ply the corridors of Washington, D.C., to keep the media in the hands of a few.
Nowhere is this offense more glaring than in the control of the public airwaves by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). For decades, their lobbyists have extracted billions of dollars worth of special favors from the Federal Communications Commission — gaining almost exclusive access to broadcast airwaves for commercial television and radio stations.
Indeed, it would be difficult to conceive of a more corrupt corporate-welfare scheme than broadcast policymaking in Washington, D.C. Broadcasters get to use billions of dollars worth of spectrum for free. In return, we are meant to get public service. That has not worked out to be such a good bargain.
So it was a pleasant surprise recently when — after exhaustive study and field testing — FCC engineers concluded that the public airwaves could and should be open without interfering with nearby TV signals. That is, the empty channels in between TV stations will now be available to offer wireless, high-speed Internet access nationwide.
In Seattle, nearly half of the TV airwaves sit vacant and ready for such use. This spectrum — often called "white spaces" — can send ubiquitous broadband signals over mountains and through buildings, potentially connecting tens of millions of rural and low-income Americans now left off the grid.
Great advances in technology have created a need to modernize how we use the spectrum. The FCC is simply following good science with good policy — shedding outdated standards that have placed the public airwaves under lock and key in favor of open information for everyone.
Support for opening white spaces is bipartisan. All five FCC commissioners are supportive of the concept. Congressional backers include Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, alongside Republicans in both the Senate and the House. Microsoft has led the way in designing technology that could utilize these airwaves to deliver affordable broadband services to millions.
It is one of those rare instances in Washington, D.C., when the net effect of a policy decision is a win-win for all involved. But do not tell that to the NAB.
Having lost on the facts, they are dispatching their lobbyists with a finely honed fear campaign designed to derail the process. TV screens will go black, they now claim; emergency communications will become garbled. If we use white spaces, the miracle of modern communications will come to a screeching halt.
Of course, this is nonsense intended to guard their broadcast fiefdoms against future competitors. As a result, we are still being kept from airwaves that could help fill one of the biggest holes in our national infrastructure.
Washington, D.C., should ignore these desperate tactics and quickly put this technology to work, as Jefferson would say, for "the whole mass of the people. "
It is time the broadcasters got out of the way.
Timothy Karr the campaign director of Free Press, the national, nonpartisan media reform group. Karr is a native of Bainbridge Island now living in New York City.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company