This March, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a giant step to ensure your cell phone no longer drops your call every time you drive in the hills or step into an elevator. By using market forces, it opened the wireless spectrum for new technology uses.
America’s wireless spectrum needed a reshuffling of sorts to help power not only television, radio, and the internet, but also the massive increase in cell phone use for voice, text, and data.
However, as the FCC rushes into the digital age, it may inadvertently leave behind some of Americans’ favorite TV and radio stations.
As the spectrum continues to face more demands due to data usage like emailing, texting, and streaming, it has become an increasing hassle for people to get through their day online. In large metropolitan areas, there is too much digital traffic trying to operate on the same airwaves, leading cell phone companies to move to 5G technology. They need higher-quality frequencies to get the job done.
This much-needed reorganization of the spectrum is now a reality thanks to the FCC’s completed reverse and forward auctions. However, for the auction winners to receive the space, many TV stations need to move to new channels. This “repacking” will require the replacement of transmitters and repositioning of antennas — no small undertaking. The government originally assured broadcasters that its mandated move would not create hardship for them, but will it keep its word?
Five years ago, Congress allocated compensation funding to harmed TV stations. Now that it has come time to finally utilize those funds, it is clear there is not enough to go around.
Nearly 1,000 television stations are still in danger due to substantial relocation costs. Six hundred and seventy-eight radio stations, which under current law receive no form of compensation, will also suffer, as it is quite common for radio stations to share a common tower with TV stations or have their own tower located close enough to be affected.
The radio frequency from the FM towers poses a tremendous hazard to the workers moving them. The only solution is for the FM towers shut down for days, weeks, or, in some cases, permanently. The list of stations at risk includes some of the nation’s top listened to, as well as smaller channels that are the lifeblood of local communities.
Can you imagine the outrage that would come if the government did not adequately compensate homeowners as promised for the land it seized to build a bridge, pipeline, or highway? While the issue at hand strikes less of an emotional chord than direct land grabs, it involves the same moral line of reasoning since public goods and private-sector businesses are at bureaucrats’ mercy.
The government pocketed over one-third of the $20 billion made in the sale of this spectrum; why not put a nominal amount of it toward keeping the government’s intention by fixing the problem?
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, FCC Chairman Ajit V. Pai seemed to agree with this notion, stating, “I expect it would be necessary, if broadcasters are going to be harmless in this repack, that Congress would have to provide additional funding.”
FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly also expressed his belief that the exclusion of the radio industry was a potential oversight and that the public should not lose access to these stations and channels simply because of the repack’s limited budget.
Multiple members of Congress have introduced legislation to address this funding oversite. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced the bipartisan Viewer and Listener Protection Act of 2017, which would allocate funding to keep broadcasters on air nationwide should the 2012 fund be exhausted as projected. Reps. Bill Flores (R-Texas) and Gene Green (D-Texas) also introduced the Radio Consumer Protection Act of 2017, which would establish an additional fund with the Treasury to protect affected radio stations.
Congress needs to act quickly on this legislation to guarantee the true success of the 39-month spectrum transition. For Congress to do anything less than facilitate a smooth transition would mean that legislative body is in the business of choosing who the winners and losers are in this deal.
That wasn’t Washington’s intent before the spectrum auction, and it shouldn’t be its legacy at the end of the process. Here’s hoping they make the right decision.