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Up for sale is the "beachfront property" of
our radio spectrum - the most important
chunk of the public airwaves to become
available in years. If used right, these airwaves
will form the building blocks of the next
generation of Internet services in America -
which could put our country back on the top of
the broadband heap.
They will also prove a boon for progressive
organizers seeking to engage more of the
digitally disenfranchised in a 21st century
political process. Much is at stake in the
spectrum sell off happening right now?
In 2005, Congress passed the Digital
Television Transition and Public Safety Act,
mandating that broadcasters vacate their
analog airwaves to make room for first
responders and commercial wireless
companies who said they needed more
capacity over the air.
Telecom companies such as Verizon Wireless
and AT&T bought licenses for
soon-to-be-vacated airwaves, raising more
than $19 billion for the government.
Broadcasters also expected the higher-quality
digital programs to help them compete with
cable and satellite providers.
Concern that the most vulnerable consumers
were likely to own analog televisions led to
the creation of a $1.34 billion coupon program
to help pay for the converter boxes. The
National Telecommunications and Information
Administration, an arm of the Commerce
Department, was put in charge of the effort.
More than 47 million coupons have been sent
out, but the program confused consumers,
requiring them to use the coupons during a
certain time period. Because of the program's
budget shortfall, new coupons cannot be
mailed out until already-issued ones reach
their 90-day expiration date.
Last month Obama's call for a delay was
echoed by consumer groups, some broadcast
networks and Democratic lawmakers. AT&T
and Verizon Wireless said that a one-time
delay of the transition would not hurt their
plans to use the airwaves for their own
advanced wireless products.
But Qualcomm opposed the delay. The
company paid more than $500 million to
access the digital airwaves, said Qualcomm
chief operating officer Len J. Lauer. "It breaks
an agreement we had with the government."
Republicans who opposed the bill argued that
postponing the switch would undermine plans
by public safety agencies to use the freed
airwaves. Harlin McEwen of the International
Association of Chiefs of Police said "it would
be better if there wasn't any delay for public
safety because there are agencies planning to
use that spectrum on Feb. 18."
Public safety agencies can use airwaves as
they become available.
"I'm so disappointed," said Wayne McBride,
deputy director for public safety
communications in Prince George's County.
The new deadline will delay the county's plans
to use the old analog airwaves to create an
emergency response radio system for police
and firefighters that will be interoperable with
systems in surrounding counties. The county
has spent $76 million to buy equipment and
build the system but cannot start testing it
until broadcasters vacate the airwaves,
"...in the biggest government auction of all
time, rights to much of the 700MHz
spectrum--known to you and me as UHF
channels 52 through 69--were sold off for an
astounding $19 billion. Verizon and AT&T
were the big winners. What they'll do with
them is still anybody's guess.