Cash-For-TV-Spectrum Scheme vs. A Property Rights Solution

by on October 21, 2009 · 21 comments

Potentially huge FCC development here, and one they actually has some sense to it. According to Kim McAvoy over at TV News

FCC broadband czar Blair Levin earlier this month met with leading TV broadcasters in Washington to discuss the nation’s urgent need for more spectrum for wireless broadband access to the Internet and the possibility of broadcasters’ relinquishing most of their spectrum to help meet that demand. According to sources familiar with the Oct. 8 meeting with the board of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), Levin suggested broadcasters might want to consider returning their spectrum in exchange for a share in the billions of dollars that would come from the auction of the spectrum to the wireless industry.

Broadcasting would retain just enough spectrum so that each station could provide a lifeline standard-definition service to the millions of TV viewers who still rely on over-the-air reception. Broadcasters could no longer offer over-the-air HD and second channels and mobile video would be off the table, but they could continue to provide a single channel of TV to every home in their markets as they do today — in full-blown HD via cable and satellite carriage and SD via the over-the-air lifeline service.

Wow, this is a very big deal, folks, since we are talking about a mother lode of prime spectrum that could be put to any variety of excellent alternative uses.  The problem is, broadcasters will—rightly, in my opinion—protest that they have occupied that spectrum for a long, long time and they have something akin to a property right in their allocations. Of course, paying them to relocate might be a very sensible way to get them off that spectrum voluntarily. But the question is whether they should be forced off of it and whether that is even legal.  No doubt, any attempt to force them off would be held up in court for many years because of inevitable legal challenges.

There is another solution: Just give the broadcasters a full, unencumbered property right in their spectrum and let them sell it or use it however they wish. Some will protest that it’s not “fair” and that the broadcasters should never be given a property right in something they did not pay for to begin with. Yet, at some point we have to stop the endless search for what I have referred to as a “spectrum reparations policy” and just get on with life.

I think everyone can now agree that the old command-and-control regulatory regime for “zoning” spectrum has retarded innovation. Imagine if we told Apple back in the 1980s that, because they started in the PC business, they could never leave the PC business and offer other innovations.  That would have been nuts! We’d never have the iPhone today. But that’s U.S. spectrum policy for broadcasting in a nutshell.  As a broadcaster, it is illegal for you to repurpose your spectrum for alternative uses.  Stated different, spectrum innovation is a crime.  How pathetic.

It’s time to change the rules and move forward.  I applaud Blair Levin and the FCC for offering at least one solution, but if it doesn’t work, we should try the other: property rights and flexible use rights in spectrum. And here are 4 or 5 other ways to get the job done.

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