The Lobby that Cried Wolf

In an October 2007 letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), executives from the four largest TV networks told the Commission that proposals to allow low-power Wi-Fi type devices to operate on vacant TV channels, “could cause permanent damage to over-the-air digital television reception." Such a dire warning would ring alarm bells for policymakers, if not for the fact that similar nightmare scenarios have been predicted before. In numerous public relations and lobbying campaigns, broadcasters and their respective lobbies – particularly the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and its technical arm, the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) – have relied upon similar doomsday pronouncements to inhibit competition and maintain their exclusive control over the valuable, but grossly under-utilized, broadcast spectrum.

Although the advancement of communication technology has created new and innovative uses for spectrum over the decades, the one constant has been the broadcast industry’s unyielding opposition to new uses of the broadcast spectrum, or to any new technology that poses even the slightest threat to their bottom line. Broadcasters have opposed some of the most important communications advances of the 20th and 21st centuries including cable television, cellular phones, FM radio, satellite television and radio, VCRs, DVRs, and – currently – mobile broadband devices that could operate on the unused TV channels in each local television market across the country.

Since 2004, the FCC has been considering opening unused television guard band channels, commonly referred to as the TV “white spaces,” for unlicensed wireless networks and devices. Throughout the FCC’s deliberation and testing process, broadcasters have followed a familiar script of scare tactics and half-truths, attempting to paint a picture of white space devices as detrimental to television reception and as a threat to everything from the DTV transition to heart monitors. The result has been to turn what should be an unbiased assessment of the feasibility of new technology into a bitter and distorted political fight. This was clearly the intention of a lobby that for the past 50 years has relied upon its political clout and financial resources to keep others out of their spectrum. As former New York Times media reporter and author Joel Brinkley observed: “Above all else, [broadcasters hold] sacred the eleventh commandment: Thou Shalt Not Give Up Spectrum.”

From low-power FM radio to wireless microphones, to analog cell phones and public safety use of unused TV channels, broadcasters have fought any and all proposals to allow new uses of the underutilized broadcast spectrum, while lobbying continually to expand their own spectrum rights. The current campaign against white space devices (WSDs) is no different. The mere fact that white spaces even exist is a byproduct of the NAB and MSTV’s unwillingness to utilize the TV band more intensively. Even after the reallocation and auction of TV Channels 52 to 69, there are still 49 channels reserved exclusively for broadcasting – even though the average TV market has fewer than eight channels licensed to full-power stations. Broadcasters have instead, leveraged their existing licenses (which they received at no cost) to gain increasingly more benefits, even as the share of U.S. households relying primarily on over-the-air TV reception has fallen steadily to below 15 percent. The following paper provides a glimpse of broadcasters’ lobbying path of deception, highlighting recent campaigns to keep others out of their spectrum and offering parallels with the current campaign against white space devices.

To read the full paper, please download the PDF below.





Benjamin Lennett