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The Great Airwaves Robbery

Last December Sen. John McCain described the 1996 grant of a second channel to broadcasters - ostensibly for the purpose of quickening the conversion to high-definition TV - as "one of the great rip-offs in American history. They used to rob trains in the Old West, now we rob spectrum." What he could not have foreseen is that the conductor of the spectrum gravy train -- the FCC -- would decide not only to allow broadcasters operating on Channels 60-69 to negotiate a multi-billion dollar payment to clear channels they received for free just five years ago, but also to continue broadcasting in analog indefinitely on their digital channel allotment.

Our panelists will discuss the implications of -- and alternatives to -- the FCC's unprecedented Order announced September 17. In a stinging letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest (Fritz) Hollings decried the Order as allowing broadcasters "to negotiate private marketplace deals that dictate the governance and the transfer of spectrum and to earn profits on the spectrum through such arrangements," an action he called "outrageous." As the broadcasters' Alliance says it hopes to set a price of 66 cents of each dollar bid at next June's public auction, the "voluntary band-clearing agreement" could cost taxpayers $10 billion or more.


American Institute of Architects
(Board Room)
1735 New York Ave, N.W.
Washington, DC
See map: Google Maps


  • Michael Calabrese
    Vice President and Co-Director, Retirement Security Program, New America Foundation

  • Thomas Wheeler
    President and CEO, Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association

  • Adam Thierer
    Director, Telecommunications Studies, Cato Institute