by Ellen Goodman – Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law – May 28 2013
About 20% of the hugely valuable TV spectrum — slated for auction in 2014 — is reserved for noncommercial stations. Only noncommercial stations (mostly owned by universities and community non-profits) can operate on this spectrum and when they sell, they must sell to other eligible noncommercial operators. Two years ago, Congress made the fateful decision to allow noncommercial stations to cash out of their spectrum when it goes up for auction to wireless providers. That means that a university licensee can sell its spectrum and put the proceeds into a gym or a dorm. Or, the licensee can enter into a deal with a commercial entity to split the proceeds in return for subsidizing its operations until that fateful auction day. It’s like this: a nonprofit is granted (at no cost) public land to operate as a park, and then allowed to sell the land on the commercial market, splitting the proceeds with a private equity firm. The park is gone, and the public gets nothing other than more commercial real estate.