At a panel on wireless spectrum that I moderated yesterday at the Tech Policy Summit in Napa, I raised the idea of repurposing the 294 MHz* of spectrum devoted to over-the-air television for wireless data. Larry Irving, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the National Telecommunications & Information Administration raised a very valid point: While only 10% to 20% of Americans rely primarily on OTA television, their number is disproportionately concentrated among minorities, the elderly, and the poor and ending free broadcasts would adversely affect these groups.
I agree. But I also believe that the benefits of freeing this huge chunk of prime spectrum would be so great that we can find a way to solve, and pay for, the problem. It’s not a great model for a bunch of reasons, but we do have precedent in telephone service. For years, a tax on telephone service has gone into the Universal Service Fund, used to subsidize rural phone service (this is now being repurposed for internet access.) And regulators required landline operators to maintain low-cost, minimal “lifeline” phone service for the poor. Both of these approaches had serious flaws; for example, USF ended up subsidizing service to rich folks’ vacation homes. But they can be made to work.
Rural service remains a big issue. Cable TV actually began life as a rural solution for people who lived too far from broadcast towers to get a reliable signal, but today rural residents are often left behind. Satellite can be a good solution, but only for those with an unobstructed view of the southern sky. Again, the resources created by the reuse of TV spectrum can be used partly to solve the rural TV problem and the much more serious (in my opinion) problem of rural internet access.
*–In the original post, I said 200 MHz. I am indebted to Rebecca Hanson of the Federal Communications Commission, a participant in my TPS panel, for the correction.