Auction off the broadcast spectrum
April 13, 2011 - 1:02 am
Do you think James Cameron watches a television with an antenna? I ask because the famed director of such technologically stunning movies as “Titanic” and “Avatar” is the keynote speaker at this week’s National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas. And I ask because the NAB is the nation’s foremost advocate of maintaining its industry’s monopolistic hold over America’s wireless spectrum.
With fewer than 10 percent of Americans relying on over-the-air broadcasting for television programming, chances are Mr. Cameron does not use an antenna television. But the relatively paltry audience using antennae out there hasn’t stopped the NAB from lobbying Congress against any move to reallocate the nation’s precious and finite supply of spectrum, much of which is going unused.
Meanwhile, on account of the NAB’s obstinacy, those who would put the unused spectrum to good use — the mobile broadband providers — are being forced to do more with less. Wireless carriers and services must meet the demands of more than 300 million U.S. wireless consumers.
As I recount in my recent book, “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream,” in order to grow and innovate — and keep pace with our foreign competitors — carriers and other providers need more access to spectrum.
The stated NAB reason for obstructing any movement on releasing the spectrum is because it’s a public service. In other words, providing supposedly “free” television service allows Americans to stay abreast of the news and important emergency information in the case of disaster. But unless you’ve been asleep for the past 15 years, this argument makes no sense.
According to a Pew Research 2011 State of the Media survey, nearly half of all Americans (47 percent) now get some form of local news from a wireless device. The decline of over-the-air broadcasting has actually coincided with an increase of news consumption. Pew found that Americans spend more time with the news than they did a decade ago.
But do we really need stats and numbers to make the point that news is accessible nearly anywhere today? When was the last time you had to adjust your television antenna to get the weather report? Now, when was the last time your cell phone dropped a call? The problems affecting consumers in 2011 reflect a 21st-century economy — not the 1950s of the NAB’s imagination.
Those dropped calls and poor reception signals are just harbingers of larger problems down the road if we don’t start putting the broadcasters’ dormant spectrum to good use. Although wireless providers have spent more than $100 billion over the past five years to upgrade their networks, they need more access to spectrum to continue growing and innovating, because demand is only going to increase. Pew estimates that by 2020, wireless devices will be the primary connection vehicles a majority of global consumers will use to access the Internet.
The rest of the world isn’t waiting on American leadership in this matter, either. Japan has identified 400 MHz of new spectrum for auction, Germany 350, the U.K. 355, with France, Italy, Canada and Spain each allocating about 250 MHz. These countries have concluded that fueling wireless broadband will help drive their economy — and they’re right.
What my organization, the Consumer Electronics Association, is advocating is a voluntary incentive auction of television broadcast spectrum of 120 MHz. Recently, the CEA put out a study along with CTIA — The Wireless Association — outlining just such a proposal and concluded that an incentive auction of the broadcasters’ unused spectrum could net an estimated $33 billion for the U.S. Treasury.
Members of Congress should take note. That $33 billion could help bridge the gap between the White House’s preferred budget cuts and the congressional Republicans’ desire for deeper spending reductions.
But that can only happen if Congress acts as rapidly as possible to authorize a voluntary incentive auction. And it can only happen if the NAB and their broadcast allies embrace reason over self-interest. It’s time we take bold steps to prepare the U.S. economy for the forecasted wireless data demands. The argument that we should forgo spectrum auctions to bolster over-the-air broadcast will only hold the nation back.
Gary Shapiro is president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Electronics Association and author of “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”