It shouldn't surprise anyone that the nation's broadcasters are reneging on their tacit promise to Congress that if they were given billions of dollars worth of public spectrum free, they would send out new high-definition TV signals giving viewers a crystal clear picture. The broadcasters are going to maximize profits on their new asset, and the market may be telling them that the way to do that is to sell paging, pay-TV, and other services in the spectrum, not HDTV.
Which is why Congress should have auctioned off the spectrum in the first place. HDTV was born of the economic cold war with Japan in the '80s. Washington feared that Japan would do high-definition TV first and wanted to give the spectrum to American broadcasters gratis to encourage them to compete. By the mid-'90s, it was clear that new digital technology made the Japanese effort obsolete. The marketplace should then have been allowed to direct investment decisions on spectrum. But broadcasters successfully pressured Congress to give it to them for virtually nothing.
There were voices opposing the giveaway, led by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and then-Senator Bob Dole, but the broadcast lobbying juggernaut rolled right over them. Fearful of offending the gatekeepers to the airways, Congress caved.
Without a commitment from broadcasters, TV manufacturers may be stalled in their plans to make digital TVs. There is still time for broadcasters to live up to their word.