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Spectrum Fees and the Urban Legend of Free Spectrum

In the past few days, details have emerged from the White House regarding the funding sources being proposed to cover the cost of the American Jobs Act. In the government’s search for cash, it should surprise no one that in addition to broadcast spectrum auction language (which seems to be in every new funding bill these days), spectrum fees are also being proposed. While there is some good news for television broadcasters, who are exempt from the fees in the current draft of the bill, you can never tell if that exemption will survive the rough and tumble legislative process. Radio broadcasters aren’t so lucky–no exemption for them.

One trend is clear–the government’s growing reliance on fees from broadcasters and other FCC license holders. When I started practicing in the 1980s, the FCC did not generally charge fees. Congress later instructed the FCC to collect a fee for each application or report filed, and to set the size of the fee at an amount that would cover the cost of processing that particular application/report. While there was some grumbling about having to pay the FCC to process reports that the FCC had required be filed in the first place, most understood that the government was not going to surrender this newly-found revenue source.

However, when Congress later required the FCC to also collect annual regulatory fees from spectrum users in amounts sufficient to cover the FCC’s total operating budget, spectrum users cried foul. They were already paying a filing fee to have the FCC process their applications, and now were expected to pay a separate annual fee to cover all of the FCC’s operating costs (including application processing). This meant that the government was double-dipping–collecting fees under the guise of “covering costs” that in fact exceeded those costs. To his credit, Commissioner McDowell acknowledged this strange situation in 2009, when he urged the FCC to “take another look at why we continue to levy a tax of sorts of allegedly $25 million or so per year on industry, after the Commission has fully funded its operations through regulatory fees. That money goes straight to the Treasury and is not used to fund the agency.” Despite the protests, the FCC continues to be required by Congress to collect those fees, which increase every year.

So broadcasters and other spectrum users can be forgiven if they are skeptical of calls for yet one more government fee on their existence. Even if the exemption for television broadcasters stays in the bill, that is limited comfort for TV licensees, since any spectrum fee adopted will almost inevitably creep over to television as Congress continues its search for revenue sources that can be called “fees” rather than “taxes.”

Sensitive to these complaints, the White House attempted to bolster its case in a summary of the bill, stating that “it is expected that fees would encourage efficient allocation and use of the radio spectrum, as the opportunity cost of spectrum resources would be reflected to commercial license holders that did not receive authorizations through competitive bidding.” This perennial argument, that broadcasters shouldn’t complain about any governmentally-imposed burden because “they got their spectrum for free,” remains one of the urban legends of Washington. Like most urban legends, however, it has no basis in fact.

Very few current broadcasters “got their spectrum for free.” The FCC has been auctioning off broadcast spectrum for over a decade, and broadcast stations that were licensed before that time have typically been sold and resold at “fair market value” many times over the years. As a result, it is a rare broadcaster that currently holds a broadcast license obtained directly from the FCC “for free”. Most broadcasters have paid dearly for that license, both in terms of the station purchase price and the public service obligations that come with the license.

Still, fee proponents argue that because the original license holder didn’t have to pay the government for the spectrum, the “free” argument still applies, no matter how many times the station has changed hands since then. That argument is eviscerated, however, by a simple analogy. When the United States was settled, the government issued land grants to settlers who “staked a claim” to virgin territory by promising to make productive use of that land (the “Sooners” being one of the better-known examples). Other than the promise to use the land, these settlers did not pay the government for their land grants. The land then passed from generation to generation and from seller to buyer many times in the years since the original grant. However, despite the fact that the original owners “got their land for free”, I would wager there are few homeowners among us who would agree that we received “our” land for free, much less accept a governmental fee premised on that assertion.

How spectrum/licenses were originally assigned by the FCC (or its predecessor agency) many years ago bears no more relevance to today’s broadcaster than 19th century land grants relate to the modern homeowner. In both cases, the original owner lived up to its commitment to the government to make productive use of the asset, and was therefore permitted to eventually sell its claim to others. To assert that these buyers are somehow suspect beneficiaries of land or spectrum ignores reality. Today’s broadcasters are merely the spiritual descendants of a different kind of settler–the pioneers of the airwaves.