Media ownership in this country is facing the largest crisis of ownership since the era of William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism. Rupert Murdoch could possibly acquire the Wall Street Journal and expand his North American empire to include a national TV network, national cable news network and a national paper.
Amid all the hubbub, a more nuanced issue is slipping through the cracks. The airwaves that carry UHF in the 700 MHz range will become vacant as the U.S. transitions to Digital Television in 2009. These airwaves could beam wireless all over the country-through mountains, forests and walls-and the auction is scheduled for next January. On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission will set the rules for the auction. Now is the time to support “open access” provisions in these rules. Without “open access” the U.S. runs the risk of handing over the Internet to corporate interests for at least another generation.
A dawning awareness of the perils of media consolidation has emerged in Congress. Legislation has been introduced challenging media ownership as well as the FCC’s devastating 2003 decision that would have expanded corporate control.
In the case of the spectrum auction the choice is clear: allowing third parties access to the network as wholesalers is the only way to break up the oligopoly telecoms hold over the Internet.
AT&T and Verizon want you to believe that “open access” provisions in the auction rules will interfere with the free market. They claim the market, left to its own devices, has produced an abundance of wireless goods and services. But in reality America’s Internet infrastructure is ailing.
According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’re ranked 15th in the world in terms of broadband access. We’re limited to two choices for providers whereas Europeans have dozens. At this late date, telecom objections to “open access” don’t add up. The market has favored corporations, not consumers.
Proposed auction rules pay lip service to “open access.” True, they would allow unaffiliated devices and services to connect over networks but this neglects the vital issue of wholesale. “Open access” must mean that third parties can access the network as wholesalers to generate real market diversity.
This issue transcends corporate control. Like the auction of a rare diamond, the spectrum is a precious natural resource. Public officials have only got one shot to get the balance right between public and private interests and that means a helping hand to wholesale to generate competition.
Strengthening “open access” provisions can only reinforce innovation. When Apple’s iPhone debuted last month many consumers were disappointed because they had to switch to AT&T. The reason: an anti-competitive business deal that makes AT&T the exclusive carrier for Apple. Strong “open access” provisions ensure you won’t have to switch to an exclusive provider (on top of cancellation fees) just to use your next-generation gadget. They ensure the freedom to choose any network you like.
The definition of “open access” must also be expanded to cover content. Subscribers must be ensured unlimited access to content of their choosing.
At this pivotal moment in the history of media, Americans should demand that the FCC support “open access” in three ways in the upcoming auction. “Open access” must mean free use of devices and services over all networks. Second, it must mean unfettered access to any and all content. Finally, “open access” must mean wholesale provisions to optimize competition among service providers and break the grip that giant telecoms hold on the future of the Internet.