The battle is now fully joined over what “television” means. Once upon a time, TV was what broadcasters put over the air on the scarce frequencies that the government gave them for free. They had to keep it clean and, every four years, send their news divisions to the national political conventions. Gradually, “TV” came to mean HBO and ESPN and Discovery and C-SPAN, as cable networks carved the American population up into marketing niches. The still-powerful broadcast networks say that digital television gives them a second chance. But to do what? They don’t know. That’s why the networks are the biggest players in the cable industry.
Meanwhile, all that beachfront property sits, vastly underutilized. Cable doesn’t care about the spectrum, even though the cable industry may cause broadcasters to give it up. But as Powell came to realize, there are plenty of other people clamoring to get on the beach. “Rural broadband would be much more feasible” if WiFi providers could use the spectrum that broadcasters are supposed to vacate instead of their current desert territory at 2.4 gigahertz, said Peter Pitsch, Intel’s director of communications policy. “Broadcasters’ spectrum would provide a plethora of services that are far more important to the future of the country than digital reruns of Friends,” said Gigi Sohn, president of the nonprofit Public Knowledge. A lifelong public-interest advocate who sided with broadcasters in their fight to get carried on cable, Sohn has abandoned a no-win effort to force “public-interest” obligations on broadcasters, she says. “Wouldn’t it be better if we just took all the spectrum away?”