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Monday, January 01, 2001


The future of television has reemerged as a national concern. Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard has joined the chorus of voices concerned about sex and violence and the failure of some stations to carry local and national political debates. Kennard suggests that if this is what the public is getting in return for the 1996 Telecommunications Act's $70 billion giveaway of public airwaves for the transition to digital television, perhaps it's time to demand something more from broadcasters.

Here's the background: Broadcasters were granted the use of a free spectrum in the '96 Telecommunications Act to facilitate the transition from the current analog broadcast system to digital television. In return, they promised to bring HDTV - high-definition television - to Americans as quickly as possible and then return to the taxpayers the spectrum used to broadcast the analog signal.

That spectrum has grown more valuable with the increasing demands of wireless and cellular technology, and some broadcasters have dug in their heels to slow the transition so they can hang onto that valuable spectrum. Some have even developed business plans to sell it and capitalize on the thriving wireless market. They have resorted to a variety of tactics, from simple noncompliance to championing an inferior European broadcast standard.

Kennard calls this practice "spectrum squatting" and is asking Congress to enact legislation to begin charging broadcasters rent for the spectrum, just as they charge the telephone companies. The revenues would run into the billions if broadcasters had to pay for their licenses. Kennard has suggested funneling some of that money toward public broadcasting.

The spectrum issue is vitally important to millions of consumers because the HDTV signal is capable of providing services for the disabled that cannot be delivered by conventional broadcast signals. It also can offer improved interactive educational opportunities for children, and it can even broadcast emergency signals in multiple languages simultaneously.

These and other benefits are the kinds of public-service obligations broadcasters are mandated by Congress to provide, and it is time for them to follow through.

Four years ago, broadcasters happily accepted the government's largess. But what began as an attempt to help broadcasters better serve the public has devolved into a gross example of corporate welfare.

The very citizens intended to be the primary beneficiaries of the digital TV transition have become the victims of a small group of broadcasters working to delay the process at any cost. Not only are Americans being denied the added public services, they suffer doubly because the delaying tactics put off the government auction of the free spectrum that could bring in tens of billions to help pay off the federal debt.

Corporate welfare may be common in our nation today, but in this instance, it is American consumers who are bearing the brunt of the burden. Digital television service will greatly benefit our nation, especially the disabled and children. But Americans will not receive the promise of digital television until broadcasters are held to their promises.

Lloyd is national coordinator of People for Better TV.