The airwaves, also known as the broadcast spectrum, are a gift of nature
that modern technology has turned into a valuable resource. As a medium for
sharing information and ideas, airwaves have enormous advantages over paper
and wires. The problem in the early days was that signals often interfered
with one another. If two nearby transmitters used the same or adjacent frequencies,
a radio listener would hear two sound streams simultaneously. America’s
approach to this problem (though not Britain’s or Canada’s) was
to give free exclusive local frequencies to private broadcasters, subject
to periodic hearings and renewal.
The quid pro quo for this gift, according to the Communications Act of 1934,
was that broadcasters would serve “the public interest, convenience,
and necessity” — whatever that might mean. The airwaves themselves
would remain, in theory, public property, with the Federal Communications
Commission (again in theory) acting as trustee.
Private broadcasters grew large and profitable under this arrangement. But
over time, as their advertising revenues soared, their public-interest obligations
declined. In the 1980s, the FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine, which required
broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues. Educational programming
also waned. In the 1990s the spread of cell phones created huge new demand
for airwaves. Instead of giving frequencies to cell phone companies for free,
Congress wisely chose to auction them, raising billions of dollars for the
federal treasury. Broadcasters, however, lobbied hard for more free spectrum,
and in 1996 Congress gave it to them, ostensibly for digital TV. This was
the $70 billion giveaway I described earlier. Today, digital technology makes
it possible for “smart” receivers to pick out only the signals
they need. Signal interference thus is, or soon could be, a thing of the
past — which makes exclusive licenses unnecessary. The airwaves could
be an open access commons with virtually no capacity limits, a possibility
that makes broadcasters, phone, and cable companies extremely anxious.
Some broadcasters have another idea. They want to privatize the airwaves,
with ownership assigned to them. Under this plan, the free licenses they
received for digital TV would become permanent entitlements usable for any
purpose. Broadcasters could then sell their entitlements to cell phone companies
and pocket the windfall. The big winners would be General Electric (NBC),
Disney (ABC), and Rupert Murdoch (Fox). Other beneficiaries would include
Pat Robertson (Christian Broadcasting Network) and Lowell “Bud” Paxson
(Pax TV). When a reporter asked Paxson why he should receive millions of
dollars for selling the public’s airwaves, he replied: “I was
a farmer and I got lucky. Now people want to build a mall on my farm. God
If Congress treated the airwaves as a common asset, it would lease most
of them at market rates for limited terms to the highest bidders. The billions
of dollars thus raised could buy free airtime for political candidates, fund
noncommercial radio and TV, and help sustain the arts.
Alternatively, Congress could turn the airwaves into an open access
commons like roads and streets. Using technologies like wi-fi (wireless
everyone could enjoy high-speed Internet access for almost nothing. As of
early 2006, nearly 150 U.S. cities were deploying or planning public wi-fi
networks. These efforts are hampered by the fact that the frequencies allotted
to wi-fi don’t travel as far, or penetrate buildings as well, as do
the frequencies given to broadcasters. A bill to open unused TV channels
for wi-fi has been introduced by a group of senators, but it faces stiff
opposition from broadcasters, telephone, and cable companies.
The Internet is a human-made commons that, for all intents and purposes,
can be used without limit. It’s arguably the most remarkable technological
achievement of the twentieth century, given that it revolutionizes commerce,
community, and culture in one swoop. As with other valuable commons, it’s
coveted by private corporations. The battle in coming years will be between
those who want to privatize big chunks of the Internet, and those (including
many corporations) who want it to be as free, universal, and open as possible.
What’s unusual is that this is one of the few battlegrounds where those
on the side of the commons have an early edge.
One looming battle concerns access — in particular, bridging the “last
mile” between the Internet and the millions of people (billions worldwide)
who could use it, but now don’t. When the Internet began, the last
mile was typically crossed by telephone. A user would dial up an Internet
server and log on. However, because telephone wires were sized for voice
signals, they can’t carry high volumes of data at high speeds.
In due time, cable companies began offering their thicker cables
to Internet users. Phone companies also came up with a system — DSL — that
squeezes more data through their skinny wires. There are thus now two good
ways to get high-speed access to the Internet — if you can afford roughly
$30 a month, or $360 a year. Since not everyone can afford this, however,
we have what some people call a digital divide — a financial barrier
to universal access.
This is where the airwaves come in. Using digital signals, it’s now
possible to bridge the last mile to the Internet through the public’s
own airwaves. Not only that, it’s incredibly cheap to do so, using
technologies like wi-fi. At the same time, another technical breakthrough
is imminent: the Internet — including this last wireless mile — will
soon be “thick” enough to carry data, telephone calls, and television
pictures. In theory, a small public investment could bring all these services
to the doorsteps of virtually everyone. There’d be no more need for
private TV networks, telephone and cable companies. The so-called information
highway would be, like public streets, truly open and free.
This is an extraordinary possibility. Americans now pay some $300
billion a year for telephone and cable services; perhaps half of this could
That’s the equivalent of raising every worker’s take-home pay
by about $1,000 a year. It should be cause for celebration.
What’s more, free universal Internet access would be a boon to the
corporate side of the economy — another example of a commons having
positive external benefits. Think of an urban shopping street, or Main Street
in a small town. Merchants on these streets depend on foot traffic; the more
passersby, the more sales they make. If someone put checkpoints or tollbooths
on these streets, merchants would scream. So it is with the Internet. Everyone
doing business on the Internet wants more traffic. Making the Internet free
to all would be the best thing that ever happened to merchants.
Except, of course, for the phone-and-cable duopoly. In several states,
these powerful companies have pushed through laws prohibiting cities from
wireless Internet service, and they’ve sponsored a similar ban in Congress.
The companies say their right to profit trumps the consumer’s right
to save money and a city’s right to serve its citizens. Many politicians
still buy that argument, so the end of this story has yet to be written.
A similar battle looms over what’s called “net neutrality.” At
the moment, the Internet — like the telephone system — treats
all content equally. No one’s data is discriminated against, and no
one’s gets favored either — your personal webste is treated the
same as Google’s. However, cable and phone companies want to create
a two-tiered Internet, with some content providers getting slow speed and
others — who pay the phone and cable companies — getting high
speed. That would mean more revenue for the companies, but also a permanent
divide between corporate content providers and everyone else.
Congress is now considering bills both to allow and to ban such tiering,
and the outcome as this is written is uncertain.
the whole chapter