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Thursday, April 03, 2003

DPR at 11:17 AM [url]:

A crucial precedent

A friend forwarded to me an article from Education Week that shows how the "spectrum property rights" agenda is being pursued in the education world to create a precedent. (you need to register, free, to see the full article). My comments below the article excerpt:
School-Owned Airwave Rights Studied by FCC
By Rhea R. Borja
Airwaves that are now licensed to schools for educational television could become a new pathway for high-speed Internet and wireless access to students, according to a proposal under review by the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC also may allow K-12 schools and universities, many of which are experiencing budget cuts, to sell those much-sought-after "spectrum" rights to high-tech businesses and other companies.

The bias in the article is clear from the title. The Schools don't "Own" any "Airwave Rights". They are licensees.

Why do we see the term "Owned" in this article? The reason seems simple to me. This is part of a cunning plan by those who want to transfer all of the spectrum to "private owners". (No it doesn't take a conspiracy - their agenda and rhetorical approach is open and public. But those who continue to use the word "owned" know better. They are lawyers and economists who understand the law perfectly as it exists today. But by using distorted language, they hope to create in the less educated public a "fait accompli" which moves the debate onto a preferred ground - that the spectrum is *already* "owned" so it's merely a question of letting the market work without the meddling of the public via the FCC).

The plan is simple. Create a precedent that "the spectrum owners should be able to buy and sell spectrum". Use the educational community, which has been kept hungry for funds for years by economic conservatives who want to transfer the entire educational enterprise in this country into private hands, so that those who can pay for education can get what they want, and those who can't pay ... well, their lack of money is prima facie evidence that they don't value education, so they deserve to lose in the market.

The money is tempting - the schools don't use their spectrum very well today. But is this because communications is unimportant to education? Of course not. Every school district is struggling to provide access to the cornucopia of resources that are building in the networked world. Every school library would love to make its digital resources accessible to the community it serves.

The result of this transfer of a relative pittance of money to the schools, to buy them off, is going to be yet another nail in the coffin of education. When the time comes that the schools are looking for more access to the essential network of the future, who will own it? Clear Channel Communications? Disney? AOLTW? The cellular phone companies?

What will their incentive be to invest in the future of our young and old learners - those who need information to grow, and those who need information to adapt to a rapidly evolving world? Today's corporations cannot invest in the future - they have to meet quarterly earnings targets or the management is fired. I have lived in this corporate decision-making world for most of my adult life - I know that managers who invest without direct, clear, short-term returns are not enhancing their careers.

Will the government that is offering to sell this spectrum have the money to pay for networks for education? Just look at their recent history. Where are the latest cuts coming from?

I have a better idea. Let's open up the spectrum in a different way for education. The spectrum licenses that are held by education are ideal for creating high-speed internet access across communities. Unlike the 2.4GHz and 5.8 GHz spectrum that has enabled the enormous growth of WiFi despite Telecom's Economic Nuclear Winter, these licenses could be used for "unlicensed" services that would allow schools to become network hubs for their community. They would be able to bypass the high-cost "Broadband" networks offered via Cable modems and DSL, providing rich local networks *without a monthly subscription fee*, merely at the cost of equipment. Companies such as Motorola already have systems (such as Motorola's Canopy system) that can be easily modified to use that spectrum extremely efficiently, with a one-time investment cost that is modest compared to cable or DSL - and which is especially suited for rural areas. And there are new technologies on the way from research labs over the next 10 years.

This naked attempt to turn spectrum into private property needs to be opposed now, before we create a very dangerous precedent that will haunt our society for many, many years.

I need to reiterate, here, that I am a firm believer in markets and competition. But in this case, the market should not be framed by creating new synthetic property rights, never heard of prior to this time (this will be the first time permanent de-jure "ownership" is created in spectrum in the entire history of the US). The market we need is like the market created by the unlicensed spectrum now used by WiFi, cordless phones, etc. That market is based on the idea that a market in equipment, protocols, etc. will create direct investment in innovative technology and innovative uses, rather than indirect investment managed by property holders who invest, not to create value, but to use their right to exclude others to maximize the returns on their already earned (often by their parents) wealth.

Education is one of the few forces that oppose the idea that *all* productive capacity rightfully belongs only to the heirs of the already wealthy individuals and corporations. The temptation for a few pieces of silver to establish a precedent that will put our entire communications infrastructure into the hands of property owners must be resisted at all costs.

We need new ways to think about "spectrum rights" - in particular because new technology and understanding of the best architectures for networks is making the old ways obsolete. I usually speak on technical issues, but this political issue (which is intertwined with the technical issues in deep ways) is so crucial that it needs to be raised to a very high level of discussion.

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