Last updated: April 15, 2008 - 1:29pm
[Commentary] Radio frequencies were jammed. Cell phone towers were wiped out. Government officials had to resort to sending runners back and forth in order to share information. These are just a few of the communication failures that left police and first responders throughout the Gulf Coast deaf, dumb and blind in those critical hours and days following Hurricane Katrina. And the blame for the communication breakdowns rests squarely at the feet of our legislators in Congress, who have capitulated to the broadcast industry on spectrum issues for far too long. So what do television broadcasters have to do with emergency communication? They both use the airwaves 'also known as spectrum' to operate. Those airwaves are public property just like our national parks and forests. Congress originally gave TV broadcasters licenses to use the best airwaves: what former Federal Communications Chairman Reed Hundt called the "beachfront property on the Cyber Sea." But technological advances now allow more efficient use of the airwaves, and giving the "beachfront property" to television broadcasters no longer makes sense. So in 1996, Congress gave each television station a second license in order to facilitate the transition to digital broadcasting. The plan was that, within a short time, they would switch over to digital broadcasting entirely and return their "beachfront property" so that those airwaves could be reallocated for other purposes -- including public safety. Congress has an opportunity this week to undo some of its previous damage when they once again take up legislation dealing with the digital television transition. Insiders expect that Congress will set a so-called hard deadline for the return of the "beachfron" airwaves -- but many questions remain about how those airwaves will then be used. Clearly, one priority must be fulfilling the promise made to our first responders nearly a decade ago to give them increased access to the airwaves. Another priority should be to ensure that some airwaves are set aside for public use.
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