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Airwaves for sale

The Clinton administration has launched a landmark proposal to free up a major segment of the airwaves now largely reserved for the military _ an important step down the information superhighway. Over the next decade or so, the proposal will make a broad range of wireless telephone, video, audio and all other telecommunications services available for commercial use.

One of the truly dramatic aspects of this shift is that, for the first time, frequencies that had been given away by the Federal Communications Commission are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Moreover, pending the outcome of a lively debate currently going on in Congress, spectrum space reserved for high-definition television also will soon become available. Some kind of fee will almost certainly be assessed.

The yield from these sources, a kind of windfall profit for the government, will be in the billions of dollars. Why not use some of it to make an investment in the financially fragile institution of free public broadcasting?

Today, public broadcasting receives about 16 percent of its $1.8-billion annual expenditures from congressional appropriations. On a per capita basis, annual financing for public broadcasting in the United States is only $1.06, compared with $38.15 for Britain's BBC and $32.15 for Canada's CBC.

Critics may charge that the audience for public broadcasting is above average in affluence and education and therefore least in need of free access. Presumably they could afford to pay for the same services public broadcasting provides if such services were relegated to cable or satellite transmission.

This argument is short-sighted. Fee-based telecommunications may well be the wave of the future, but there will always be large numbers of people who would be hard-pressed to pay for such services. At a time when the cost and complexity of promising new technologies threatens to widen the gulf between the information "haves" and "have-nots," we must try anything to help close that gap _ like free, high-quality public broadcasting.

Henry Morgenthau is a fellow in media and public policy at the Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard.

New York Times