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The public's airwaves

The airwaves belong to the public. Or so they used to. The government charges practically nothing for the licenses it issues and collects no rent. Yet the licenses have enormous resale value. An estimated $5.4-billion was paid for 125 television stations in 1987, and only a tiny part of that was for such tangible property as buildings and equipment. More recently, a Philadelphia cellular telephone license sold for $1.1-billion. For less than half interest in a New York City license, someone paid $1.9-billion. The government got none of it. The Bush administration is now proposing to auction unassigned frequencies, including some now reserved for defense, that are avidly sought by the would-be marketers of mobile telephones and other new technologies. It's a sensible idea that a Congress concerned for the taxpayers ought to welcome. But, as the New York Times reports, a fight is brewing. Among the opponents is the enormously powerful National Association of Broadcasters, which wants nothing done that might imply a public financial stake in its enormously valuable licenses. Auctions have also been opposed in the past by Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., the autocratic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, even when the idea, as proposed by former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark S. Fowler, was to use part of the proceeds for public television.

The opposition of the broadcasters, who persuaded Congress to waive any claim to resale profits in 1952, is indefensibly self-serving. More reasonable criticism comes from those who say auctions would make it hard if not impossible for new companies to deliver the low-cost cellular telephone service that some of them are promising. But the better argument would be to let market forces determine what the licenses are worth. It would be irresponsible for Congress to reject it out of hand.

It's too late for Congress to make the broadcasters pay for the licenses that were originally given to them _ but not too late to begin levying a reasonable regulatory fee for the supervision of those licenses or a hefty tax on resales. Failing that, an unused license ought to be turned back to the public rather than be sold privately. That would be a plausible compromise with respect to the unassigned frequencies, which have been given away by lottery, in the event there isn't the gumption to go to auction.

In law, if not in practice, the airwaves still belong to the public _ all of them. A license, after all, is just a license. It is not a deed.