Government profiteering on somebody else’s airwaves
The Government appears to have agreed to a deal to help bail out media company MediaWorks, reports the Royal NZ Herald.
Except Media Works hasn’t received a loan from the Government at all. What it has received is an agreement to defer payment for the use of the Government’s radio airwaves for the next twenty years—for which the Government is charging MediaWorks $43.3 million plus penalties of 11.3%.
Frankly, this sounds like children talking. Because not one of the commentators on any side of the aisle has bothered to challenge the most absurd part of this story: that the government owns the airwaves in New Zealand, and not the private broadcasters—and that it charges the broadcasters handsomely for the “privilege” it grants them for using this nationalised property.
Something that is frankly as absurd with airwaves as it is with foreshore and seabed.
As if that sort of setup was capitalism.
Yet virtually every commentator takes it for granted that airwaves (and seabeds) are "public." But they shouldn't be. And curiously, none of them sees the connection with the foreshore and seabed debate. But they should.
Sure, while the airwaves themselves have always existed in nature, the broadcast technology that gives them value did not. It’s here that property status properly begins.
When inventors and engineers first unlocked nature's potential to carry radio waves, and entrepreneurs began developing the commercial value of radio, the government had a responsibility to define property rights in this sphere--so that these innovators could own and utilize portions of the spectrum without interference by others.
But instead of defining property rights, the government usurped them.
There is an exact parallel here to property rights over [foreshore, seabed, and] newly available land. When the American frontier was opened in the 19th century, the government did not declare it public property. Rather, it parceled out the unowned land on a first-come, first-served basis, and then recognized a property right for those who made use of the land for five years. The same type of procedure—enabling pioneers to earn a property right to that which they render valuable--applies to any newly usable portion of spectrum.
Meaning, among other things, that it doesn’t need to go cap in hand to its master every year pleading for another license—something some governments have oft-times used to shut down stations that criticise them too harshly.
Unfortunately, our government does not recognize airwaves as private property, and never has. In the 1920s, its response to the development of radio was not to define and protect property rights for the field's creators, but to nationalize them as "public property." Consider the injustice of this: the pioneers who envisioned the potential of radio technology, and took the risk of bringing it about, had no more right to their creation than we do, who created nothing.
Under the "public" airwaves regime, businesses do not own but merely "license" portions of spectrum--which the government has total authority to control in the "public interest." The use of spectrum is determined, not by the business that has purchased and earned it, but by the [grey ones]--by whatever it feels is in the indefinable "public interest." In the realm of media, … bureaucrats can effectively censor viewpoints they dislike by revoking broadcast licenses or imposing huge fines. In the realm of wireless data, [bureaucrats and Government] can impose more onerous terms on a paying licensee anytime they wish--such as Google's proposal that licensees be forced to sell large portions of their bandwidth to competitors at FCC-dictated "reasonable" rates, no matter what it does to their business…
[We] need to start recognizing airwaves as the private property they really are…
Yes. We do.