An Open Letter to Jack Valenti

by Arnold Kling

“The FCC scored a big victory for consumers and the preservation of high value over-the-air free broadcasting with its decision on the Broadcast Flag. This puts digital TV on the same level playing field as cable and satellite delivery. All the way around, the consumer wins, and free TV stays alive.”
--Jack Valenti, Motion Picture Association of America

Dear Mr. Valenti,

I am a consumer, and I did not win when the FCC voted 5-0 to require personal computers and other devices that might store video files to comply with a technical specification designed to protect copyright of high-definition television (HDTV). In this letter, I am going to do two things. First, I am going to explain why I am mad. Then, I am going to explain how I plan to get even.

The High Cost of Free TV

I am one of the small minority of Americans that still gets free TV. I do not subscribe to cable or satellite TV. Accordingly, I am one of the "human shields" that you and other lobbyists are using to justify imposing a hardware tax on the entire nation.

I should hasten to add that I make no claim to be a cable-TV "have-not." Instead, I am a cable-TV "do-not." My wife and I have determined that there is nothing on cable TV that is so compelling that it justifies a subscription. Cost is not the issue. For our family's sake, we prefer not to have cable TV.

The Broadcast Flag technology is supposed to benefit me, by encouraging broadasters to send HDTV signals over "free" TV. I am as excited about this as I am about Cable TV, which is to say--not at all. I have no desire to encourage broadcasters to send HDTV signals. I do not think that my fellow cable TV have-nots and do-nots care about this issue, either. I'll bet that not one of us has ever written to our Congressperson expressing our need to watch HDTV sent over the airwaves.

Please note that it is inaccurate to refer to broadcast HDTV as "free TV," particularly in the wake of the broadcast flag regulation. In fact, HDTV is going to be very expensive for the economy as a whole, as millions of devices will now have to be made to conform to the Broadcast Flag standard. Furthermore, I predict that individuals will spend time and resources trying to "hack" the Broadcast Flag, which will lead to modifications of the technology, which will layer on more costs to the economy.

In short, you are claiming to represent consumers like me when you do not. You are claiming to preserve "free" TV when in fact you are increasing the cost to consumers--not just those of us who still view broadcast television, but also the vast majority of consumers who subscribe to pay-TV services as well as consumers who might not use television at all but wish to buy computers or other devices with electronic file-storage capability.

Getting Even

I have no plans to try to try to hack the broadcast flag. I do not care enough about your precious content to watch it, much less copy it. I will get back at you another way.

Another subsidy that "free TV" enjoys is the allocation of spectrum. I hereby declare that subsidy null and void. I am announcing the Jack Valenti Spectrum Re-allocation. As of November 4, 2003, the spectrum that was allocated for HDTV is now allocated for spread-spectrum wireless.

I will not buy any device for the purpose of receiving HDTV. Instead, I will gladly purchase devices that will route packets via the Internet Protocol over that spectrum. In the neighborhood of my house, IP packets will take precedence over HDTV signals.

I recommend that other consumers adopt the Jack Valenti Spectrum Re-allocation. I am talking about massive civil disobedience of the FCC. Remember, anyone who receives television over cable or satellite will give up nothing by assigning higher priority to IP packets. For anyone who misses broadcast television, it would be better to give them taxpayer dollars to subscribe to satellite TV than for consumers to pay the Broadcast Flag hardware tax.

By re-allocating spectrum from HDTV to wireless IP, we can kill two legacy birds with one stone. We can hasten the demise of the phone companies--because with a wireless "last mile" the wireless Internet can replace traditional land lines and cell phones; and we can show Jack Valenti, the movie industry, and the television industry what it really means to "score a big victory for consumers."

To comment on this essay, go to the thread at Broadcast Flag This