THE BLOG

The Chicken Little Lobby Comes to New York

11/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Timothy Karr Senior Director of Strategy, Free Press and Free Press Action Fund

An unusual skirmish over the future of the Internet is being waged this week in the velvet cloaked chambers of New York City Hall, where city council members are weighing whether vacant television airwaves should be opened to the Internet.

It's unusual because spectrum policy of this sort is not often discussed beyond the confines of the Federal Communications Commission and meetings with experts and lobbyists inside the Beltway.

That the city council decided to take up spectrum access speaks more to the long reach of D.C. lobbyists than it does to the actual oversight of the council members.

white spaces
The powerful lobbyist in question is the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The issue is the use of television "white spaces," vacant frequencies between TV channels.

New technology can open this vacant frequencies to powerful high-speed Internet services -- sending open and ubiquitous broadband signals over mountains and through buildings, potentially connecting tens of millions of Americans to the Web.

Scare-mongering at the NAB

White spaces may become available for use after television broadcasting goes digital in February 2009.

While almost everyone else sees its tremendous potential to serve the public good, the NAB wants to hoard this spectrum.

According to the NAB's chicken-little lobbyists, white spaces spell the death of television as we know it. One of them parachuted into New York on Monday to sow fear and misinformation about others using these airwaves. Television screens could go black, he told the City Council; emergency communications could get garbled. The miracle of modern communications would come to a screeching halt. Let anyone other than his employers and their corporate allies gain access to this public spectrum and the sky will fall.

For New York City in particular, the NAB and their sudden allies in the theater lobby are predicting an especially ominous future. In a time when the city has failed to recoup the tourism lost since 9/11, the lobbyists are warning that Broadway shows -- a consistent income earner for the city -- could be disrupted as white space devices interfere with the wireless mics worn by the actors, singers, dancers and stagehands.

When Politics Trump Innovation

As you may have guessed by now, white spaces are very political. And when NAB lobbyists muddy up the debate the political process is not pretty, and rarely productive.

But that's their intention.

Put clearly, the issue boils down to this: The fight over white spaces pits those who have access to spectrum, and want to keep it for themselves, against those who don't, and want spectrum to be used to serve other purposes as well.

In the middle of this fight is developing technology, which should make this spectrum useful for more than just TV, without causing interference to anyone. FCC engineers are sorting out the technical specs at the moment. And it's only a matter of time before they see to it that the haves and the have nots will be able to enjoy this spectrum in ways that benefit us all.

The NAB doesn't want that. Working with New York's theater lobby, they have managed to get the City Council to draft a resolution that mangles the issue and throws up all sorts of static about opening up these airwaves to innovation.

Corporate Welfare Bums

It's a tactic not based in the facts about white spaces, but in the history of a powerful corporate lobby that's skilled at freezing out innovation that might threaten its near complete control of a valuable slice of airwaves.

For decades NAB members -- deep-pocketed commercial broadcasters -- have benefited immensely from free, government-granted access to these airwaves. Now that they're being asked to grant equal access for the Internet, they're contriving doomsday scenarios to scare folks off and intimidate elected officials -- including the good members of New York's City Council.

The broadcast companies owe their existence to governmental largesse, including multi-billion dollar FCC licenses handed to them for free. Now they're biting the hand that's stuffed them to the gullet in a bid to protect their government granted fiefdoms.

Politics should not stand in the way of innovation, especially technology that could bring vast benefits to so many.

The sky isn't falling. White spaces should be opened for everyone.