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Going Digital: Who Wins, Who Loses?

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Well the digital phase-in starts in February 2008. While many may not notice the phasing out of analog, some certainly will. At the top of the list will be those with older cellphones, and those with Onstar systems from 2005 and before. The shut down of the analog cell phone system will impact an estimated 1 million customers, and the number impacted by General Motor's OnStar conversion are not known. TeleAid (Mercedes) and Lexus Link are also impacted and the systems are generally not upgradable. Various home security systems are also going to be cut off. The digital television switch is to happen in February 2009. I somehow doubt it is going to be a raving success. As more advertisements come out regarding the digital switch, the picture seems to get rosier and rosier. The pitch goes that this will improve television viewing, increase service, free up bandwidth for other (and important) functions. All the nasty little details are somehow left in the dust, but the devil is in the details. The real reason for the switch to digital has more to do with control of the communication spectrum than it has to do with increasing quality and reliability. I recommend taking a look at A Primer On The Coming FCC Auction. There is big money involved in buying up the digital broadband licenses. One of the in-the-wings winners (thanks to an FCC rule change) is Frontline Wireless (emphases mine):
Changes to the rules for its upcoming radio spectrum auction by the Federal Communications Commission have breathed life into a possible bid by the start-up Frontline Wireless. The changes, announced late Thursday night by the FCC, remove two key roadblocks to Frontline Wireless successfully raising money to pursue a bid in the auction say analysts and the company's vice chairman. Frontline is backed by a group of politically connected individuals in the telecommunications industry including Janice Obuchowski, George H.W. Bush's telecom policy chief, and President Clinton's FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. The group will now be able to receive a small business bidding credit worth 25% in the auction and operate entirely on a wholesale rather than retail basis. ... Hundt said the FCC changes were made directly as a result of Frontline Wireless' lobbying efforts at the agency. An FCC official later confirmed the company had figured into the decision to change the rules.
But the sell-off and "competition" for the commercial spectrum began well before 2007. It actually started in 1993 with the Bill Clinton push to sell off the airwaves. That plan came to full fruition with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which started the wave of media mergers and concentration of control of the airwaves. The real mechanism was the selling off of the commons of the radio spectrum with the hopes that it would raise roughly $500 billion. This "income" helped offset budgetary debt. This plan was not dissimilar to similar sell-offs of the commons both in the U.S. and around the world. Those commons might be mineral rights, forests, water systems, publicly run facilities (schools, prisons, etc.), or the air waves. In fact, the neo-liberals (read corporatist Republicans in Democrat's clothing of whom Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council figure prominently) were - and are - quite willing to privatize most everything. Now the move to digital with yet a further privatization. It is no surprise at all that both the Bush and Clinton administrations have joined together in the Frontline Wireless scheme. At the center of the push for privatization has been the CATO Institute - a right leaning, heavily libertarian (read deregulation and privatization) think tank. Instructive to their approach is this excerpt from the CATO Handbook for Congress - 105th Congress (1997) Chapter 27 - A Federal Privatization Agenda:
Congress should
  • sell all federal energy enterprises;
  • convert air traffic control, public broadcasting, and various research and development laboratories to self-supporting nonprofit corporations;
  • privatize Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service via worker-management buyouts;
  • gradually sell off commercial lands and buildings;
  • auction off all remaining nonmilitary frequency spectrum;
  • sell federal loan portfolios; and
  • sell remaining commodity stockpiles.
This is followed by a partial table of "salable federal enterprises" which includes such things as the nations dams, energy facilities, U.S. postal service, and the various research facilities including the USDA research facilities. The CATO Institute's recommendations to the current Congress regarding the telecommunications, broadband, and media policy has been:
Congress should
  • level the telecom playing field by placing all carriers on an equal legal footing and comprehensively deregulate all carriers to accomplish this goal,
  • sunset all forced-access regulatory mandates,
  • reform and devolve universal service subsidies and the ''ERate'' program,
  • quarantine broadband wireless Internet telephone services from remaining federal and state regulation,
  • clean up the telecom industry tax mess,
  • reject new cable and satellite regulations,
  • enact comprehensive spectrum reform and privatization, and
  • allow comprehensive media ownership reform to advance.
In short, deregulate, privatize, and allow unlimited market concentration. So, as we struggle through the digital transformation and are engrossed in jiggling wires to get our pretty pictures on our non-HDTV sets, remember that the real benefits are going to those who control the airwaves - and therefore the bulk of "information" that the people receive.
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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and a Senior Editor for Cyrano's Journal Online with her own page being CJO's Avenger.

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Do you think you will benefit from the digital &qu... by Rowan Wolf on Friday, Dec 28, 2007 at 5:37:33 PM