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Spectrum Auction Seen as Threat to Minority Broadcasters

GRAPHIC: The FCC is holding an auction in which wireless companies will bid on parts of the nationís airwaves currently being used by television stations and use them for wireless broadband. Some say that threatens minority broadcasters. Credit: Federal Communications Commission.
GRAPHIC: The FCC is holding an auction in which wireless companies will bid on parts of the nationís airwaves currently being used by television stations and use them for wireless broadband. Some say that threatens minority broadcasters. Credit: Federal Communications Commission.
October 20, 2014

BOSTON – As the song goes, "Video Killed the Radio Star." Will wireless kill some free public TV?

That's the latest media question.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is holding an auction in which wireless companies such as Verizon and AT&T will bid on parts of the nation's airwaves currently being used by television stations.

It's called a spectrum auction and Todd O'Boyle, program director for Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, says billions of dollars are at stake.

"On the one hand, the broadcasters are looking at a big payday, potentially,” he explains. “And on the other hand, the cellular folks are looking at making lots of money building next-generation networks."

But some observers are concerned that, given the incentive to sell spectrum, the owners of some public television stations that serve diverse communities in many cities will give in.

Minority voices would be muffled and the TV industry, virtually bereft of any minority ownership to begin with, would be further mainstreamed.

Ravi Kapur helps run a low-power TV station in San Francisco that could find itself with no spectrum bandwidth to broadcast on.

And, he says, so could stations that serve African-American, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipino communities.

"There's Korean-owned stations in Chicago and New York, Indian-owned stations in Houston, and, of course, my station, KAXT, which at one point was considered the most diverse TV station in the country," he points out.

According to one estimate, the auction could generate $45 billion, and another forecast says nearly 3,500 low-power television stations could be affected by the spectrum changes.

Public broadcasting advocate John Schwartz, director and founder of the Voqal companies, says the government doesn't seem sympathetic to pleas on behalf of public TV.

"The FCC is strongly influenced not only by the lobbying power of the big carriers – because obviously that's massive – but also out of the concern that the most important and most valuable use of spectrum now is for wireless broadband and not for broadcast," he says.

The government also intends to use some of the money raised to build a next-generation public safety communications system.

Schwartz questions whether the FCC will apply any balancing tests.

"And is this going to be done without regard for things like public television, service to minorities and other considerations of that type?” he says. “And I think the answer now is not looking good to me. "

The auction is set to start on Nov. 13.



Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - MA