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Let Them Eat Fees: Broadcasters and the Spectrum Measurement and Policy Reform Act

At a recent presentation on legislative matters affecting the communications industry, I noted that broadcasters, while lately feeling much under siege, should not underestimate their part in the digital future. It is true that the government wants broadcasters’ spectrum (the National Broadband Plan), cable operators want broadcasters’ programming, ideally for free (the retransmission battles in Congress and at the FCC), politicians want broadcasters’ airtime (the DISCLOSE Act), musicians want broadcasters’ money (the Performance Tax), and the Internet would love to have broadcasters’ audiences. However, the conclusion to be drawn from those facts is that broadcasters have what everyone else wants, and need to themselves capitalize on those important assets.

Let there be no doubt that broadcasters are in for some challenging times fending off those who covet their riches, but that is a far better position than having no riches to covet in the first place. As the possibilities for television and radio multicasting become better developed through experimentation and innovation, mobile video gains the prominence in the U.S. that it is experiencing overseas, and broadcasters continue to refine how best to leverage their content on multiple platforms, broadcasters have as good an opportunity as anyone to make their mark in a digital future, while others fall by the wayside as “one-idea wonders.”

Unfortunately, government has begun to place its thumb on the scale, discouraging broadcasting while encouraging other wireless uses. The latest example is this week’s introduction of the Spectrum Measurement and Policy Reform Act (S. 3610) by Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). The legislation would encourage broadcasters to abandon spectrum for a share of the government’s auction proceeds for that spectrum, and authorize the government to impose spectrum fees on broadcasters. In other words, the FCC can use spectrum fees to “encourage” broadcasters to relinquish their spectrum.

This government push is propelled by one of the oldest myths regarding broadcasting, and one of the newest myths. The first myth is that broadcasters are the only licensees who have not paid for their spectrum, and therefore merit less leeway in how they use it, or whether they get to use it at all. Of the thousands of broadcasters I have worked with over the years, however, only a handful actually received their spectrum for free. The vast majority bought their stations (and FCC licenses) from another party, paying full market price, and therefore being really no different than the wireless telephone licensee that also bought its FCC authorization from a prior licensee. Whether some earlier, long-gone broadcast licensee that built the station enjoyed some financial windfall doesn’t bring any benefit to the current licensee. The current licensee inherited the dense regulatory restrictions of broadcasting, but not the “free spectrum.”

In addition, new broadcast licensees have generally purchased their spectrum at FCC auction since Congress changed the law in 1997, just like wireless licensees. Despite that, no one has suggested that even these more recent licensees should be released from FCC broadcast regulations because they paid the government for their spectrum.

The second and newer myth, propogated by advocates of the National Broadband Plan, is that broadcasting is a less valuable use of spectrum than wireless broadband since spectrum sold for wireless uses goes for more money at auction than broadcast spectrum. That is, however, a distorted view of value. Everyone, including the FCC and the wireless industry, has denoted broadcast spectrum as “beachfront property” from a desirability standpoint, meaning that it is not the spectrum, but the regulatory limits placed on it, that is creating the difference in cash value at auction. An alternate way of viewing it is that the public receives that difference in auction value every day from broadcasters in the form of free programming and news, rather than in the form of a one-time cash payment to the government. That the public receives more value for their spectrum from continuing broadcast service than from a one-time auction payment (that is swallowed by the national deficit in a matter of seconds) becomes more obvious when you realize that the public will then spend the rest of their lives leasing “their” spectrum back from the auction winner in the form of bills for cellular and broadband service.

An apt analogy is national parks. Would selling them outright for industrial use bring in more cash than keeping them and allowing them to be enjoyed by the public? Certainly. Is selling them for industrial use therefore the most valued use of parkland? Hardly.

Broadcasters have been good tenants of the government’s spectrum, paying the public every day for the right to remain there. If they stop those public service payments, they lose their license, making way for a new tenant. This new legislation aims to entice these paying tenants from their spectrum so that the spectrum can be sold outright to the bidder who perceives the greatest opportunity to extract a greater sum than the auction payment from the public. That may be poor public policy, but it is at least voluntary for the broadcaster, though not for the public. Threatening to tax broadcasters with spectrum fees until they surrender their spectrum is not marketplace forces at work, but the government forcing the marketplace to a desired result. Proponents of wireless broadband must have little confidence in their value proposition if they feel they can come out ahead only if they first devalue broadcast facilities by imposing yet more legal and financial burdens on broadcasters.