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Lesson 1 in reporting the spectrum: Who gets what? (AP)

Is the spectrum just too complex for reporters?

ASK THIS | February 21, 2008

The electromagnetic spectrum is incredibly valuable, worth perhaps a trillion dollars. But its parts are auctioned off cheaply or given away by the government to a few knowledgeable people who then make fortunes. And the story is just about never reported.

By J.H. Snider

The most valuable natural resource of the information age is arguably the electromagnetic spectrum, which is used for the wireless transmission of information. In February 2008, an FCC auction of 50 MHz of spectrum raised $19 billion, the largest single auction of public property in U.S. history. Given that there is approximately 3,000 MHz of prime spectrum (plus another 297,000 MHz of non-prime spectrum), that implies a total spectrum valuation upwards of $1 trillion.

The vast majority of the publicly-owned spectrum either has not been auctioned or has been auctioned off incompetently. Instead, it has been granted to private interests with no public compensation. Why has this story gotten so little press attention?

One reason is that the press is confused and scared by the complexity of the issue. To journalists (and most people), spectrum is an invisible resource with apparently mysterious and even magical properties. When they pick up an FCC rulemaking and observe the highly technical way most spectrum debates are framed, their initial fears are only confirmed. Rather than embarrass themselves, they would prefer not to cover spectrum.

Another reason is that any given spectrum giveaway tends not to be the stuff that could make the front page, even if it were comprehensible. Spectrum giveaways tend to take place gradually over decades and across hundreds of different FCC rulemakings and tens of thousands of “minor” license modifications. A reporter who wanted to cover any one of these stories would probably bore his or her readers to death. 

In writing about spectrum, journalists should cut through the technical jargon and focus on “who gets what?” TV broadcasters, for example, are now seeking to expand their spectrum rights from their grade B contour to their designated market area contour (a huge increase in the amount of spectrum used for broadcasting), shift from site-based licensing (a single transmitter covering a metropolitan market) to geographic service area licensing (a cellular architecture like that used by mobile phone companies), and force consumers who want to fully benefit from a proposed next-generation TV operating system to discard their old digital TV sets (the primitive digital TV sets currently on the market).  

They are seeking all these new rights from the FCC without paying a dime to the public for them. Each issue is framed, in obscure proceedings, without reference to the costs they might impose on the public. Nor is the TV broadcast band unique.  Similar maneuvers are taking place in almost every band.

To do this type of reporting well and have self-confidence in their own work, journalists need to consult a trusted engineer who can translate the technical gobbledygook into issues the public can understand.  Alternatively, just as lawyers are now recruited to do legal reporting and doctors to do health reporting, spectrum engineers should be recruited to do spectrum reporting. 

Traditionally, the most popular spectrum story had to do with the decline of the public-interest obligations licensees used to justify their free license rights—the best studied case being the decline of the public-interest obligations that radio and TV broadcasters used to get their licenses for free beginning in the 1920s. Public-interest groups in Washington, DC, still like to focus on that story, perhaps because they and the public can understand it with minimal effort.  But with the decline of genuine public-interest obligations, which were largely eliminated by the 1980s, and the relatively insignificant amount of prime spectrum that hasn’t already been licensed or that can be subject to auctioning, the spectrum lobbyists’ game has switched to seeking “minor modifications” of existing licenses that enhance their spectrum rights. This is a new game, and it requires the help of technical experts, not the typical lobbyist, public interest advocate, or think tank analyst, to decipher.

In addition, journalists should make the difficulty in covering spectrum giveaways—the cover-up, you could call it—a central part of their story. Spectrum politics has become a paradigmatic case of modern special-interest politics. A relatively small number of players have been able to freely acquire public assets worth tens of billions of dollars because they can do so under the public radar. The special interests that benefit from this system have no incentive to change it, so it is unlikely that the aspiring spectrum journalist’s job will be made easy any time soon. Rather than be intimidated by the obscurity of spectrum issues, journalists should recognize that in the obscurity lies the key to their story.

The good news is that once the story is framed this way, it is easy to understand. It takes even members of Congress only a few minutes to see that something is seriously amiss with the government’s spectrum policy. But they also recognize, after just a few more minutes of thought, that this is a classic special-interest issue where pursuing the public good brings no political gain. No politician has ever lost office as a result of a spectrum scandal; indeed, the worst panderers to the spectrum lobby, such as Democrat John Dingell (chair of the House committee responsible for spectrum policy) and Republican Ted Stevens (ranking minority member of the Senate committee responsible for spectrum policy), have often had the most illustrious congressional careers. The journalists’ job should be to change that dynamic, so that by doing good, our politicians can do well.

The problem of not knowing what you don't know
Posted by J.H. Snider - Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
03/17/2008, 09:38 PM

I agree with Brian Robinson that a handful of spectrum rights issues have gotten substantial press attention, including a few high profile bands that consumers use such as the TV, WiFi, and mobile telephone bands.

However, if he reads my Art of Spectrum Lobbying (a link is provided at the end of the article), I hope he will realize how much has been omitted from this coverage. At a basic epistemological level, the problem is that the journalists don't know what they they don't know.

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