The Department of Education's TV and radio
stations known as WNYE are reportedly up for sale. WNYC-FM is
going to buy the radio station (WNYE-FM 91.5) and WNET-Channel
13 may buy the TV station
(Channel 25), according to the Times.
The deal has been a "secret" to
the people of New York. As Joyce Purnick of the New York Times reported,
" There has been no announcement, no competitive
bidding, no comment from the agency conducting the
negotiations, the Economic Development Corporation."
This is troubling because it contradicts Bloomberg's
promise of greater transparency.
Before these deals are signed and sealed, some
government are urging the city to conduct an open
review of WNYE and its potential buyers. City
Councilmember Gale Brewer believes that WNYE could be
a valuable asset in the future, if the city keeps it.
WNYC and WNET--both public
broadcasters--may seem like
the best possible buyers. WNYC features well-known
non-commercial radio broadcasts from National
Public Radio such as "Morning Edition" and
Fresh Air" in addition to its own programming. And
Brian Lehrer's morning call-in show has always been
one of my favorites. Similarly, Channel 13 offers a
range of quality shows such as Sesame Street and
With these wholesome offerings, one might find it hard
to object to the sale, especially in times of deep budget
cuts. However, a more extensive public evaluation is
SPECTRUM: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
WNYE hold the license to a vital public
spectrum. More commonly referred to as "radio waves"
or "airwaves," the electromagnetic spectrum is used
for a variety of things. These include cell phones,
satellite communications, radio, broadcast TV and
wireless Internet access to name just a few.
According to Times columnist William Safire,
" [Spectrum is] the most valuable natural resource of
the information age."
Since spectrum is invisible, it is difficult to grasp
its worth. The New America Foundation's "Citizen's
Guide to the Airwaves" (in pdf format)
offers a graphical representation. The total value of
all US spectrum is estimated to be $771 billion.
But, the Federal Communications Commission is using what is now widely regarded as an inefficient
way to regulate access to the airwaves. "[Spectrum
is] being managed wastefully and inequitably, and
what's at stake is the future of technologies that can
enable the tremendous economic and social potential of
anywhere, anytime access to high-speed data
networking," writes the New America Foundation's
Michael Calabrese in The Atlantic Monthly.
This is because spectrum regulations
were created as a
result of radio interference almost one hundred years
ago. In the 1920's, crossed signals often led to
crashes on the high seas because ships could not
contact one another or call for emergency response.
These problems led to the passage of the
Communications Act of 1934.
However, new technologies render the current system
defunct. Some advocates in Washington are pushing for
spectrum privatization while others are arguing that
the resource should be treated as a "commons," much
like our current highway system.
Adam Theirer of the libertarian Cato
Institute writes, "There exists today
overwhelming intellectual support for an alternative
system of spectrum governance based upon the free
market principles of flexible use, property rights and
freedom of contract."
In reality, new FCC regulation will most likely be a
combination of both.
Groups like NYCwireless,
are working to gain access to unused and wasted TV
broadcast spectrum. If the FCC allows more spectrum
to be used without a license-microwaves, TV remotes
and pacemakers all do this-then it could be used to
support free Internet access. According to
NYCwireless' Dustin Goodwin, "[This] will be critical
to changing the way the poor of this city gain access
to the communication services."
So, should the city go ahead with its plan to sell
WNYE? Experts disagree on the potential value of
these stations for future education programming or
According to Bob Miller, "The sale would be a big
mistake." This is because WNYE's TV station could be
used to broadcast five to twelve channels digitally.
However, in recent years, lack of city funds prevented
the station from shining, digitally that is.
Miller's company Viacel
uses a technology that can
digitally broadcast to small portable devices. Such
technology could turn WNYE into a great resource for
delivering educational content to all New Yorkers, not
only those enrolled in public schools.
Everything from homework assignments
to videos could
be sent to students on their laptops, personal digital
assistants or cell phones. Many of these devices are
starting to come with digital receivers which would
allow them to get the broadcasts. This could be used
along with the Internet to facilitate learning beyond
the doors of the classroom.
Viacel's technology, while popular overseas in
Russia, Australia and Hong Kong, is different from the
digital broadcasting standard used in the U.S. The
company has been granted a waiver to use the
technology by the Federal Communications Commission.
But, Goodwin of NYCWireless
sees less value in holding
onto WNYE for a different reason. He says, "[channel
25] would not be enough to be useful for wide scale
wireless community network deployment." This is
because channel 25 is only 6 megahertz wide. A
wireless network requires a channel that is 22 megahertz
wide--the wider the channel the more information can
While current FCC regulations prevent using a
broadcast channel as a wireless network, it is
possible the city could request a waiver to use WNYE's
spectrum for this purpose.
So, maybe we shouldn't be mourning WNYE's
yet. Instead, the city might want to take a good hard
look at what it owns with an eye towards the
technologies that might make it a lot more valuable to
the Department of Education in the future. Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.
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