DC think-tank strategist warns PEG-access TV operators of “uber” radio spectrum policy battles

PITTSBURGH, Penn. — Cable public-access station operators were given a strong dose of media policy on Thursday at their annual convention as a Washington, D.C. think-tank leader urged them to join an “urber” political battle playing out among telecommunications companies, regulators and public advocates.

Corporations are working to control the public airwaves and radio spectrum so no one else can have access to it, said Sascha Meinrath, who heads the open-technology initiative of the New America Foundation, a DC think tank. The telecoms would like to have all radio spectrum usage rights auctioned to the highest bidder, Meinrath said, a view that he said is being embraced by the Obama administration.

The problem with that approach, Meinrath told members of the Alliance for Community Media at their annual convention in Pittsburgh, is that it doesn’t mean the limited radio spectrum — used by wireless, radio, TV, public safety, Internet broadband, military and other purposes — is allocated in the public interest. “Auctioning to the highest bidder doesn’t take into effect network effect, or the externalities or the opportunity cost,” said Meinrath. “And it leaves out non-profit community and participatory media.”

He said when spectrum is auctioned, the government “gets a quick influx of money and then a long period of pain,” Meinrath told some 250 directors of “PEG access” operations, adding: “We need to acknowledge the systematic problem of spectrum availability.”

 By one measure, the United States, he said, is 15th among developed nations in broadband penetration, down from No. 1 about 10 years ago. By another measure the U.S. is in 28th place. He said the United States is 40th out of 40 nations in progress toward building a knowledge-based information economy. “We are struggling to deliver 10 megabits (Internet access speed),” he said. “Hong Kong is about to offer 1 gigabits for about $26 a month.”

Meinrath said U.S. “ineptness and stagnation” in media policy today offers opportunity for tomorrow. He cited four initiatives that bear watching:

First, the e-rate service should be restructured so that lines requisitioned can then be split and shared by the purchaser. The telecom industry wants every purchase to be unsharable.

Second, he said the $10 billion to $15 billion telephone universal service fund can’t now be legally used to build out broadband (rather than legacy phone) infrastructure. He says that should be changed.

Third, the FCC should adopt regulations opening up the low-frequency TV band (superior because low frequencies pass through buildings and over terrain better than the current wireless spectrum), for public use.

Finally, PEG access operators and others should help mobilize grass-routes support for telecom initiatives favored by Meinrath and others, to counteract hundreds of telecom lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

Corporations are “encapsulating” new media, Meinrath said, by developing propreitary approaches. “This is reverberating on the hardware, software, infrastructure side of things.” There is no check and balance on that, he said.  “The Internet is a commons that we all benefit from,” said Meinrath, and it should be viewed like other “commons” developed by public-sphere institutions such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and rivers, or universal telephone service in rural America, or our system of government-financed highways. “And we have nothing of the sort when it comes to broadband media.”

ACM’s meeting in Pittsburgh includes a track on how PEG access stations — largely supported by fees levied by government on cable companies — can begins to foster and build citizen journalism operations. Other general themes including how to fundraise, social media, moving beyond television to Internet programming, and details on the national broadband planning process underway in Washington.

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