By Mary Kuhlman
In the early 1980s the song reflecting the state of electronic media was "Video Killed the Radio Star." In 2014, the question has become whether wireless media will "kill" free public TV.
Beginning Nov. 13, the Federal Commnications Commission (FCC) will embark on a "spectrum auction", in which wireless companies like Verizon and AT&T will bid on portions of the nation's airwaves currently being used by television stations.
Todd O'Boyle, program director for Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, says there are billions of dollars at stake.
"On the one hand, broadcasters are looking at potentially a big payday," says O'Boyle. "On the other hand, the cellular folks are looking at making lots of money building next-generation networks."
Some observers are concerned that, given the incentive to sell spectrum, the owners of some public television stations that serve diverse communities in many cities will "give in" and similarly sell. Minority voices would be muffled and the TV industry, virtually bereft of minority ownership to begin with, would be further "mainstreamed."
Public broadcasting advocate John Schwartz, founder and director of the Voqal companies, says the government doesn't seem sympathetic to pleas on behalf of public TV.
"The FCC is strongly influenced not only by the lobbying power of the big carriers, because obviously that's massive, but also out of the concern that the most important and valuable use of spectrum now is for wireless broadband and not for broadcast," says Schwartz.
The government also intends to use some of the money raised to build a next-generation public safety communications system.
Schwartz questions whether the FCC will apply any balancing tests.
"Is this going to be done without regard for things like public television, service to minorities and other considerations of that type?" he asks. "The answer now is not looking good to me."
According to one estimate, the auction could generate $45 billion, and another forecast says nearly 3,500 low-power television stations could be affected by the spectrum changes.