Broadcasters Scotch Low-Power Radio

Mercury News: Plans for low-power radio dealt a blow. Since January, when the FCC first launched the low-power radio program, about 300 schools, churches, clubs and other groups in California and thousands more nationally expressed interest in starting new local stations. Yet, the FCC put the program on hold as it faced political pressure from several members of Congress to kill the plan.

The broadcasting lobby, once again, has rolled over Congress and the public interest.

A few years ago, the nation’s television broadcasters extracted one of the most outrageous deals in history. They got Congress to award them new spectrum — worth $50 billion to $70 billion, by reasonable estimates — in return for some vague promises that they’re already breaking. Never mind that the airwaves were public property. What the broadcasters wanted, they got.

The Federal Communications Commission wanted to open up pieces of the radio spectrum for low-power stations. But the existing broadcasters, increasingly part of massive chains without the least interest in the communities they “serve,” loathe the idea of competition from stations that actually care about their back yard. The threat, you see, was that people would actually get a choice instead of the consistent marketing-driven pablum on today’s airwaves.

So the commercial broadcasters — with National Public Radio’s support, I’m disappointed to discover — launched a campaign of disinformation and speculation. Even though the FCC had done plenty of testing, the broadcasters insisted there would be interference on existing stations. This was a fig leaf for powerful members of Congress to block the low-power initiative.

President Clinton should be ashamed of himself. He surely knows better, but has once again been untrue to his early promises.

I don’t expect shame from the broadcasters or their congressional puppets. But if a lame-duck Democratic president can’t find the courage to do the right thing, what hope will there be under the Republicans, who stand up for big corporations against the small as a matter of course? None.

What can low-power radio advocates do at this point? I don’t know. The grassroots got squashed this time. They’ll have to start over, and try to convince a new Congress.

The Internet may be the radio station of last resort for people who genuinely care about communities. You have to believe the broadcasters are looking hard already for a way to stop even that phenomenon.

The real culprit, once again, is the legal bribery we call campaign financing. Maybe we’ll see some real action on it in the next Congress, though the opponents hold the strings. Until campaign finance reform arrives, the public interest will remain little more than a quaint notion.

Meanwhile, low-power radio languishes. This is a sad day for the republic.

Monopolist Knows One When He Sees One

ZDNet: Microsoft calls on FCC to examine AIM. Bill Gates personally phoned the FCC chairman and commissioners last week to lobby for an investigation of AOL’s dominance over instant messaging.

Gates is absolutely right. He’s also a raging hypocrite. What else is new?

America Online’s dominance of instant messaging is just as profound as Microsoft’s control of the market for PC operating systems. Both companies have used their dominance to shut out genuine competition, and to leverage their power elsewhere.

What AOL is assembling via its instant messaging system is nothing short of a new communications network in which it not only owns the center but the phone book, too. The value of this is incalcuable. And a system of this sort should be open to other players.

If the FCC doesn’t have the courage to force AOL to be more open in its messaging, allowing other IM clients to interoperate with its own, then the Justice Department should begin preparing a new antitrust case.

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