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Selling Public Airwaves Impacts All

PHOTO: Public television fans may find their local outlets vanish in the wake of what's being described as a $45 billion "gold rush" by wireless providers bidding in an FCC-mandated auction of broadcasting spectrum. Photo credit: D. Tribble/Wikimedia Commons.
PHOTO: Public television fans may find their local outlets vanish in the wake of what's being described as a $45 billion "gold rush" by wireless providers bidding in an FCC-mandated auction of broadcasting spectrum. Photo credit: D. Tribble/Wikimedia Commons.
October 27, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - 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 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 some are concerned it could have a disproportionate impact on smaller TV stations. Public broadcasting advocate John Schwartz is one of them. He's director and founder of the Voqal companies.

"The FCC is strongly influenced not only by the lobbying power of the big carriers because obviously that's massive," Schwartz says. "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."

Schwartz and others are concerned, given the incentive to sell spectrum, the owners of some public television stations that serve diverse communities in many cities will give in. He and others say minority voices could be muffled and the TV industry, virtually lacking any minority ownership to begin with, would be further "mainstreamed." The auction is set to start Nov. 13.

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."

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

Jerry Oster, Public News Service - SD