The 700 MHz Auction — The Biggest Media Story You’ve Never Heard About

A decade ago, the US media landscape was transformed by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This loosened the ownership requirements for big media corporations and ushered in today’s communications landscape dominated by a few huge players, disgruntled customers, and increasingly limited news sources. And it laid the groundwork for the transition to HD TV.

But, if you’re like most Americans, you’ve never heard about this law. Why? Because the corporations that you get your news from decided that you didn’t need to know about it. Or maybe because they thought it was too complicated for you. Either way, it was barely covered anywhere.

Flash forward to this week. The HD transition is almost complete. The networks were given a huge swath of spectrum to use for HD signals. This was estimated to be worth upwards of $50 billion in 1996, but it was given away free in exchange for the existing spectrum, the airwaves used to broadcast analog TV. Never mind that the HD spectrum can be used to show five channels while the old spectrum is good for just one.

The networks have been using the HD spectrum for several years, and now they have to return the old airwaves. The FCC will auction off this 700 Megahertz band to the highest bidder. And they will make rules for the auction, rules that will affect the ways we communicate for decades to come.

Add to this tasty stew the fact that the US cellphone system is far less flexible than what consumers are used to in Europe. Network neutrality — making sure that all broadcasters are treated equally — is common there. And in Europe phones and carriers are independent. The system works like your landline phone — buy your phone at Costco, plug it in and start talking.

Enter Google. Google has been talking about bidding for the 700 Mhz spectrum and they’ve advocated a set of auction rules designed to open up competition for broadband wireless services.

Meanwhile, a quarter of a million Americans have filed comments with the FCC, urging an open auction that will preserve competition and make sure that the spectrum doesn’t end up getting used in a closed, proprietary way.

Finally, enter the FCC. The five commissioners have more power over your media experience than just about anybody. But again, you probably couldn’t name even one of them. The Democrats, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, have generally been in favor of net neutrality and an open broadband system. The Republicans, Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell, usually come down on the side of corporate interests. The fifth and often deciding vote is the chairman, Republican Kevin Martin. Usually an industry guy, in the 700 MHz auction he’s supporting a compromise. The rules were decided on Tuesday, and details haven’t been made public, but they will apparently give Google some of what it wanted. Many consumer groups think that the FCC didn’t go far enough. The auction itself will start some time before the end of January.

For more on this subject check out and

For details about recent developments, check out these articles: Save The Internet, NY Times, Ars Technica #1, Ars Technica #2.

This may sound like arcane stuff, but how you will use the Internet and your cell phone for years to come depends on the lobbying of big corporations working behind the scenes with government. It behooves us all to learn about what’s going on and what the stakes are — even if the major media outlets don’t think we’re interested.

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2 Comments on “The 700 MHz Auction — The Biggest Media Story You’ve Never Heard About”

  1. AndrewK Says:

    Interesting you posted this as I just had a conversation about the Tcom Act of ’96 and media consolidation of ownership (and why it’s a bad thing) that stemmed from Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal. It’s definitely one of those things that happens so far “behind the scenes” that it’s pretty much completely off people’s radar. When the average Joe turns on the TV, surfs the net, or uses his cell phone he doesn’t care how or why they work he just expects them to work.

  2. Steve Says:

    Definitely. But if you don’t know about something you generally don’t know you don’t know. In Russia, people mostly like their media, but they never hear anything fundamentally negative about the government.

    There’s a good article on Ars Technica today about Michael Copps.

    FCC Commissioner: US playing “Russian roulette with broadband and Internet”

    Here’s the audio from a very interesting session with him and commissioner Adelstein at this year’s National Conference on Media Reform. It’ll open and play in your browser or you can download it.

    FCC Update with Commissioners Copps and Adelstein

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