Spectrum and access issues
Will there be a public lane on the infohighway?
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The primary asset that makes public radio and public TV possible is the "noncommercial educational" spectrum reserved by the FCC in the FM band (in 1939 and 1945) and the UHF television band (in 1952).
But will the future equivalent of public broadcasting be possible over new electronic pathways? Here are some key issues:
- Who will operate reserved channels?
- Will financially squeezed institutions sell off their channels to the highest bidder?
- Can reserved educational channels be de-reserved and sold?
- Will cable systems carry public TV in the digital age?
- Will direct-to-home satellites carry noncommercial programming?
- Will there be noncommercial set-asides in new media?
- If they must pay fees for access to the infohighway, will schools at least get a discount?
Who will operate the available reserved channels?
With most reserved frequencies already taken, there is intense competition among colleges, nonprofits and religious groups for the few remaining FM and TV channels. But for years the FCC did not have a method for choosing among "mutually exclusive" (MX) applicants. Late in 1998, the FCC proposed to use lotteries to choose who would get licenses. Public broadcasters proposed point systems instead. In 2000, the commission adopted a point system favoring local applicants that don't have other broadcast channels.
Religious broadcasters, including well-funded chains, compete with secular public broadcasters for channels that may be given up by their present licensees. Public radio was shocked in 1997 when a major for-profit religious radio chain put in the high bid to buy WDCU-FM from a financially weakened university in Washington, D.C. NPR and a public-interest law firm considered challenging the sale. A station broker meanwhile tried to "pry loose" other public stations owned by colleges that might be tempted by offers. Eventually, the station was bought by C-SPAN, a nonprofit network supported by the cable TV industry.
Religiocasters are generally the only well-bankrolled interests that can qualify to take control of a reserved public radio frequency. By early 1998, they had filed for hundreds of unused noncommercial FM frequencies, and some public radio people were urging defensive action.
Will financially squeezed institutions sell off their channels to the highest bidder?
In a recent case, the Detroit school system has decided to keep noncommercial station WDTR for instructional purposes. It had been considering whether to keep keep or sell the station. And in Greeley, Colo., the staff of KUNC led a buyout from the university that held its license instead of letting the station become a branch of a Denver-based network..
(Sometimes the station isn't worth enough to sell. With no windfall bid in the offing, an Iowa community college has dropped plans to cash in its public radio station in the Omaha metro area. The college had hoped for millions from the sale of KIWR.)
Public radio wondered whether this will become a replay of the WDCU situation in 1997, in which a big-city station was nearly sold to a profit-making religious broadcaster.
Since then, public radio leaders developed a capital fund to finance acquisitions of available stations, which backed its first station purchase in 2000.
In the most significant loss of spectrum for public TV, the then-strapped New York City government sold its TV station for profit, while it allowed WNYC radio to buy itself from the city.
Can reserved educational channels be de-reserved and sold?
Even noncommercial channels may be sold for cash. With many public stations wondering how they'll pay for digital conversion and other costs, a number are choosing the option of trying to sell of extra channels (some of them underused).
Pittsburgh's WQED, which fell into debt by the early 1990s, decided to sell off its second TV channel, but in 1996 was denied permission by the FCC, which wanted to avoid the precedent. Then the station tried to swap the second channel with a local religious broadcaster for some cash and the religious broadcaster would sell its former channel. More than years after WQED's application, late in 1999, the FCC approved WQED's sale of the station, but the religious broadcaster pulled out. In 2001, WQED launched a third bid for FCC permission to sell its UHF station.
A somewhat similar deal was proposed in Buffalo, where WNED sought to sell off its second TV channel. It persuaded the FCC to de-reserve the second channel in exchange for adding the noncommercial reservation for its main channel. A court upheld this swap in 2001, but the station faced at least one more battle with a citizen group opposed to the sale.
In a few other cities, licensees don't need permission to sell public TV channels because (like WNED) they were never officially reserved by the FCC. New York City sold its WNYC-TV to help its budget. Public TV stations in the Albany, N.Y., area and in Oklahoma City are moving to sell their never-reserved second channels to raise capital for the DTV conversion. As of mid-1999, the sale had been delayed in Albany but went through in Oklahoma City.
Will cable systems carry public TV in the digital age?
FCC "must-carry" rules require cable systems to carry most ordinary, analog public TV stations, but the commission took no action to require carriage of the new digital TV signals that will replace analog TV in coming years.
In September 2000, public TV negotiated its first national carriage deal with a major cable operator, Time Warner.
Will direct-to-home satellites carry noncommercial programming?
In December 1999, DBS operators were under FCC order to set-aside 4 percent of their channel capacity for noncommercial educational or informational programming the long-delayed result of a 1992 law. A new adult-education channel, PBS You, was among six new channels selected by DirecTV, the largest DBS operator.
The FCC rules followed a federal appeals court decision that upheld the provision in 1996, and the FCC adopted rules in 1998 specifying the share: 4 percent. Before the FCC's December 1999 deadline, PBS and other nonprofits were seeking DBS channels under the set-aside rule.
The provision was backed by lobbyists for public broadcasting as part of a continuing campaign to make sure that there is a "public lane" for noncommercial and educational use in all the new electronic media comparable to the reserved channels in television and FM radio.
Will there be noncommercial set-asides in new media?
In the 1990s, advocates for the nonprofit sector asked Congress to set-aside "a public lane," "public bandwidth," or just "a public bike lane" in new media as they develop. Former FCC member Ervin Duggan, now PBS president, was among those who spoke up for the "public lane," which would guarantee that there will be some information services motivated by noncommercial cultural and educational goals, accessible to all Americans.
Public broadcasters, who had lacked the capital and the consensus to get into cable TV in the 1980s, grew concerned about the future of noncommercial programming in the early '90s as it became clear that phone companies will someday carry video and audio programs on fiber optic lines. At a conference in Texas, leaders speculated about the infohighway and what it would do, and not do, for public services that don't have profit appeal for the private sector.
Though the Internet today can't ship TV programs around quite as easily as e-mail, "video on demand" is the big selling point for future broadband infohighways. An early market test implies that public TV's narrow-interest programs may win a bigger audience share when delivered "on demand." The storage technology that makes it possible massive arrays of digital disc drives is already coming into use.
Public TV lost its first bid to find a place on the infohighway in 1992 when the Federal Communications Commission rejected its request for free or discount carriage on the "video dialtone" services that phone companies were proposing to offer.
In 1994, with Vice President Gore talking about how the infohighway could help education and medicine, public broadcasters again sought a "public right of way." Public TV's lobbying group sought free use of up to 20 percent of the capacity of networks on the infohighway for nonprofit programmers. In House testimony, public TV asked Congress to ensure access not only to viewers of programming but also to nonprofit suppliers.
Supporters in Congress wouldn't go along with the reserved-capacity idea, but inserted brief provisions for "preferential rates" for some program providers in the massive bills that would put the cable TV and telephone industries in direct competition.
To rally support, nonprofit organizations of all kinds staged a major "summit" conference with Gore as keynote speaker in March 1994, as an answer to a comparable event held by Hollywood and the communications industry.
In June 1994, the nonprofits won the support of Sen. Daniel Inouye for a stronger bill with a 20 percent reservation, and testified for its passage. Telecom companies, which would be required to provide this free carriage, were strongly opposed, but declined to testify. When the bill left the Senate Commerce Committee in August the "public lane" on the infohighway had been reduced from 20 to 5 percent. Opposition from various segments of the telecom industry stalled major telecom reform until 1996, when the Congress finally passed the Telecom Act. Under Republican control, Congress rejected "public lane" proposals, but did include the discount for selected categories of schools and hospitals.
If schools must pay access fees, will they get a discount?
Without free transmission capacity in wired media, nonprofits sought and won discounts. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, provided for unspecified discounts for the nation's schools, libraries and rural hospitals, which generally can't afford to fully use the infohighway at commercial rates.
In November 1996, a state/federal panel recommended "e-rate" discounts of 20-90 percent. Authorities, who regard the discounts as a major event for K-12 schools, recommended that schools prepare to take advantage of the discounts when they became available in January 1998. Since then, rate-conscious industry and consumer interests have pushed the FCC to scale back the e-rate program.
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