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Why Give The Airwaves Away?



Make them pay for spectrum. Broadcasters are about to succeed in getting the government to hand over nearly $40 billion worth of precious airwave space. At a time when Congress is struggling hard to balance the budget, it is ludicrous to offer this freebie.

What's going on? In 1992, when the Japanese appeared to be winning the battle for high-definition TV, the government gave a huge block of spectrum to U.S. broadcasters to help them compete. Three years later, HDTV is a commercial dud, but broadcasters still want the spectrum. With new digital technology, they can send lots of channels into the home.

Since 1994, the Federal Communications Commission has been auctioning off the airwaves. To date, it has put $9 billion into the federal coffers. The spectrum handed out is worth many times that, but the broadcasters don't want to pay. They prefer the old days, when the government simply allocated spectrum, free of charge, for everything from TV to garage door openers.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) recently floated a plan that would have auctioned off frequencies in the top 25 markets, but lobbyists forced him to back off. We hope Pressler rediscovers his political courage and does the right thing. Sell the spectrum to the highest bidder, and use the money to pay down the government deficit.

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