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Outdated Policy Decisions Don’t Dictate Future Rights in Perpetuity

Congressional debates about STELA reauthorization have resurrected the notion that TV stations “must provide a free service” because they “are using public spectrum.” This notion, which is rooted in 1930s government policy, has long been used to justify the imposition of unique “public interest” regulations on TV stations. But outdated policy decisions don’t dictate future rights in perpetuity, and policymakers abandoned the “public spectrum” rationale long ago.

All wireless services use the public spectrum, yet none of them are required to provide a free commercial service except broadcasters. Satellite television operators, mobile service providers, wireless Internet service providers, and countless other commercial spectrum users are free to charge subscription fees for their services.

There is nothing intrinsic in the particular frequencies used by broadcasters that justifies their discriminatory treatment. Mobile services use spectrum once allocated to broadcast television, but aren’t treated like broadcasters.

The fact that broadcast licenses were once issued without holding an auction is similarly irrelevant. All spectrum licenses were granted for free before the mid-1990s. For example, cable and satellite television operators received spectrum licenses for free, but are not required to offer their video services for free.

If the idea is to prevent companies who were granted free licenses from receiving a “windfall”, it’s too late. As Jeffrey A. Eisenach has demonstrated, “the vast majority of current television broadcast licensees [92%] have paid for their licenses through station transactions.”

The irrelevance of the free spectrum argument is particularly obvious when considering the differential treatment of broadcast and satellite spectrum. Spectrum licenses for broadcast TV stations are now subject to competitive bidding at auction while satellite television licenses are not. If either service should be required to provide a free service on the basis of spectrum policy, it should be satellite television.

Although TV stations were loaned an extra channel during the DTV transition, the DTV transition is over. Those channels have been returned and were auctioned for approximately $19 billion in 2008. There is no reason to hold TV stations accountable in perpetuity for a temporary loan.

Even if there were, the loan was not free. Though TV stations did not pay lease fees for the use of those channels, they nevertheless paid a heavy price. TV stations were required to invest substantial sums in HDTV technology and to broadcast signals in that format long before it was profitable. The FCC required “rapid construction of digital facilities by network-affiliated stations in the top markets, in order to expose a significant number of households, as early as possible, to the benefits of DTV.” TV stations were thus forced to “bear the risks of introducing digital television” for the benefit of consumers, television manufacturers, MVPDs, and other digital media.

The FCC did not impose comparable “loss leader” requirements on MVPDs. They are free to wait until consumer demand for digital and HDTV content justifies upgrading their systems — and they are still lagging TV stations by a significant margin. According to the FCC, only about half of the collective footprints of the top eight cable MVPDs had been transitioned to all-digital channels at the end of 2012. By comparison, the DTV transition was completed in 2009.

There simply is no satisfactory rationale for requiring broadcasters to provide a free service based on their use of spectrum or the details of past spectrum licensing decisions. If the applicability of a free service requirement turned on such issues, cable and satellite television subscribers wouldn’t be paying subscription fees.

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