When inaccuracies are widely disseminated and repeated by respected sources, the facts face high hurdles. A pervasive and egregious example is William Safire's frequent assertions (most recently in his Oct. 9 New York Times
column "Spectrum Squatters") that there are "great chunks" of fallow radio spectrum lying out there that broadcasters have "stolen" to provide digital-television services, but that might otherwise have been auctioned for up to $70 billion. Particularly galling was that FCC Chairman Kennard, who should know better, the same week used this $70 billion number in a speech coining the "spectrum squatters" phrase to justify a fee on broadcasters for not moving the DTV transition forward quickly enough.
The fact is that the radio spectrum being used for DTV was salvaged from the buffer channels used to protect analog TV channels from interfering with each other. The notion that this spectrum could have been auctioned for anything close to $70 billion was debunked by government economists years ago.
Lost sight of, in the effort to paint broadcasters as villains, is the fact that it was Congress and the FCC which determined the public interest was best served by assuring that the benefits of our free and universal national and community-based television-broadcast system be transferred from analog to digital technologies. The only way to accomplish this without abruptly shutting down current service and turning television screens blank was to lend broadcasters those buffer channels to gradually transition to digital.
To make that happen, broadcasters are well on their way to spending $10 billion to construct digital facilities that replicate their existing analog service. Broadcasters have so far built 165 digital-television stations serving two-thirds of the American public. And they have made the investments, even though there are few working receivers available.
Many stations are mortgaging their futures on DTV, even though few have access to the 70% of viewers who are cable subscribers. Meanwhile, the FCC is still "squatting" on a rulemaking that Congress ordered it to launch three years ago dealing with set compatibility and cable carriage of digital signals.
Safire also picked up on Chairman Kennard's inapt comparison of broadcasters' situation to that of the owner of two rent-controlled apartments that leaves one empty. Never mind that broadcast stations are meeting the FCC requirements that they inhabit both
apartments (both channels) even though such dual occupancy is difficult, expensive and currently offers no additional revenue to the broadcaster. Let's examine the real-estate analogy. The original broadcasters were like homesteaders who settled fallow land and, by dint of their labors, made it valuable. Few original broadcasters remain and most of today's broadcasters bought their "properties" from others at the price of improved land and often, in turn, made it more valuable still. When digital technology emerged, present-day broadcasters agreed to use this more intensive farming technique on their existing land, so that eventually they could turn back a quarter of the land to be resold to others, with all the proceeds of the sale going to the government.
It's time for Safire, Chairman Kennard, and those who quote them to stop repeating inaccuracies and to get the facts and analogies right. Broadcasters would like nothing better than a successful transition, which then would allow spectrum to be returned to the government. But the timing of that "give-back" is now primarily in the hands of the receiver manufacturer and cable industries, regulators and ultimately the consumers. Broadcasters can do no more than build the DTV facilities, put programs on the air and hope they will come.