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Editorial: Price of the Fee

Congress has begun the process of authorizing the FCC to compensate broadcasters for relinquishing spectrum to wireless broadband. If that were to be an entirely voluntary process, there is some upside for broadcasters, as this magazine has reported. But a bill introduced last week outlined something that would put a thumb on the scale toward making it less than voluntary: a spectrum fee.

The momentum to reclaim broadcast and other spectrum has been building, driven by the White House’s official stamp of approval several weeks ago, and by an FCC report released last week stating that broadband was not being deployed on a timely basis. That, said the FCC, underscores the need for, among other things, “innovative approaches to unleashing new spectrum.”

Congress is proposing to essentially tax broadcasters off their spectrum if they choose not to take the FCC buyout. The FCC is using the conclusion in its new report to add fuel to the fire of spectrum reclamation, a fire it is trying to light under broadcasters.

Could that squeeze play be effective? Perhaps. Voluntary? Not so much.

A look on the bright side
National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith was looking at the bright side last week. In a letter to the administration, he said that broadcasters saw the possibility of a “holistic” approach to voluntary spectrum policy, allowing broadcasters to deliver essential and competitive services. But one of the non-starters was a spectrum fee.

The House spectrum bill (a Senate complement was being readied at presstime) has some good points, including that authority to pay broadcasters, a cost-benefit analysis on any reclamation, and a spectrum inventory, which everybody agrees needs to be done (and preferably before any figures on what can be reclaimed from whom are set in stone). For that matter, given the pace of technological change, the stone in which any policy is set will likely wind up being its headstone.

Any cost-benefit analysis must go beyond mere dollars-and-cents spectrum valuations to the value of a free service to a key public interest constituency—over-the-air viewers, who are often the lower-income and minority populations that this administration, and all administrations, should be sworn to serve.

Spectrum fees have been proposed in many an administration budget, only to be disposed of eventually by Congress. But tying the latest fees to the juggernaut of broadband deployment by way of wireless could give it new legs. Everybody agrees that broadband access is critical to citizenship in the digital age, but simply invoking broadband should not foreclose debate on the individual merits of government policies.

In any voluntary approach without a federal thumb on the scale, broadcasters should continue to be a player in the communications future. Oh, yeah—and that spectrum fee has got to go.