The Airwaves: For Public TV or Internet Companies?
RICHMOND, Va. - As the song goes, "Video Killed the Radio Star." Will wireless kill some free public TV? That's the latest media question.
The Federal Communication Commission 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. Todd O'Boyle, program director, Media and Democracy Reform Initiative of Common Cause, says there are billions at stake.
"On the one hand, the broadcasters are looking at a big payday, potentially," says O'Boyle. "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."
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," says Schwartz.
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. The government also intends to use some of the money raised to build a next-generation public safety communications system. The auction is set to start on Nov. 13.