Some public activists says that state lawmakers could be almost “giving away” South Carolina’s broadband spectrum.A subcommittee held a hearing at the statehouse Wednesday concerning the leasing of that spectrum, meaning the different electronic frequencies that broadband suppliers can use.
The FCC controls licenses to transmit using electronic communications signals, whether it’s broadband, television or radio. When the FCC mandated the switch to digital broadcasting, it allowed South Carolina to own, or lease to private companies, the nation’s only public, statewide wireless Internet system.
The Joint Bond Review Board Subcommittee will make a decision on a contract to lease all of the state’s educational broadband capacity to two private companies, Clearwire and Digital Bridge.
Each state, by law, keeps five percent of the spectrum for public educational use. The state stands to gain up to $147 million for leasing those rights. But some public activists want to hold back on 20 percent of that, $35 million worth, to have for future educational purposes.
The Research Director for the New America Foundation, a Washington think
tank investigating the future of wireless communication and other technology issues, testified before the panel. Sascha Meinrath said that, due to tremendous unexpected jumps in technology and the way that it’s used, that the value of broadband space could be ten to 100 times the projected value within 30 years. He said 30 years ago, those entities controlling spectrum space wouldn’t have had an idea that it would have been worth ten to 100 times as much today.
“And if you look 30 years prior to 30 years ago, back to WWII, you would have seen an inaccurate evaluation of the spectrum then as well,” said Meinrath. “The television spectrum was practically given away, thought to be all but valueless. And the same with radio before that.”
Meinrath said spectrum licensing has always been given away for nothing, because those in control don’t imagine today’s science fiction becoming tomorrow’s science.
Meinrath said as a fiscal conservative, he abhors the mortgaging of the future of the US that happens when spectrum is leased. “It’s going to fall on my generation and the shoulders of my kids to fix these problems. I would point out that selling off today’s spectrum assets, even at fair market value, is incredibly short-sighted and will further impoverish future generations for an immediate payoff.”
A special commission appointed by state lawmakers researched the matter and negotiated with the private companies. Gary Pennington with Pennigton Law firm negotiated on behalf of the commission. “It’s better to put that spectrum in the hands of Clearwire, private enterprise, who has the expertise to deploy that technology for the benefit of all the citizens of South Carolina, rather than the state trying to utilize it itself. That was the consensus. We can only deal with the here and now. We don’t have a crystal ball.”
Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey held a press conference before the hearing, saying that loosing control of the extra 20 percent of broadband that his organization is calling for would mean that the state would end up having to buy use of it back from the private companies, at a much higher price.
Bursey says the spectrum will be needed to serve the state and its people. “It’ll serve people looking for jobs, those looking for educational opportunities. And there are nearly 13,000 police in South Carolina who need broadband to be able to communicate better. There are many options the state could exercise over the next 30 years.”
Orangeburg representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the only Democrat on that four-member subcommittee, says before a vote is taken, she wants to see in the contract a statement of commitment from the private companies that they will serve rural communities.