All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1969

Socialized Airwaves


Mr. Emanuelson is a licensed broadcast engi­neer and a student of electronics engineering in Colorado.

The situation regarding control of the airwaves may well be the closest approximation to total so­cialism in the world today. The use and allocation of radio fre­quencies is totally regulated by international treaties and national governments. Private ownership of the airwaves is virtually non­existent. The responsibility for this condition rests mainly with the governments of the United States and the other supposedly capitalistic nations. Organized communism had little to do with the governmental seizure of the airwaves.

The term “airwaves” actually refers to empty space, rather than air. Such space remains useless until someone turns on a radio transmitter—just as much of the land in the American West remained useless until it was settled and developed by the pioneers. The airwaves qualify as property in the same sense that land does. Both can be bounded, claimed, and controlled either by private in­dividuals or by governments. With respect to land, we have applied the private-property homestead principle. With respect to the air­waves, we have resorted to so­cialism.

Imagine what the consequences might have been if, when this country was being settled, the gov­ernment had zoned all land and leased it out by granting three-year licenses. This would have been out-and-out socialism. Yet, this is exactly the situation that prevails with respect to the air­waves in our supposedly capital­istic society.

Instead of resorting to social­ism, radio frequencies could be considered as private property, with unclaimed radio frequencies subject to claim by anyone who has a transmitter and wants to use the unclaimed frequency. If a hobbyist wants to transmit televi­sion signals on channel 4 in an area where that channel is un­claimed, why shouldn’t he be per­mitted to do so? The homestead­ing principle should be applied to the airwaves as well as to land. Unowned frequency space could be claimed in the same manner that unowned land is claimed. Radio frequencies also could be bought and sold just as land is traded among willing buyers and sellers. If a hobbyist establishes sole claim to channel 4 in a given geographical area, any broadcast­ing company that subsequently wants to use that frequency space should be free to try to buy or lease it from the hobbyist.

With the current state of tech­nology, there is plenty of fre­quency space available for every­one who is willing and able to buy or build a UHF radio transmitter.

Except in a few metropolitan areas, nearly all of the UHF tele­vision channels are unused. Yet, just one of these UHF television channels contains enough fre­quency space for 600 AM broad­cast or two-way radio stations—each with a range of 30 miles or so. Undoubtedly, much of this idle frequency space would be put to good use if the airwaves were a commodity on the open market.

As with any other scarce and valuable resource, putting the air­waves on the free market would insure their most efficient and profitable use. A “radio-home­steader” hobbyist would have the same incentive to sell or lease his frequency space to a broadcasting company as any land owner might have to sell or lease his land to a mining company if it contained rich mineral deposits.

Strange that a country founded on the principles of private prop­erty and the free market should ignore those principles in exploit­ing the discovery of radio.

 

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Private Property

Barbarism has its earmarks, and the acquisition of property through conquest or superior force is notably one of them. Civili­zation, too, has its earmarks, and the orderly disposition of property through the medium of deeds, leases, wills, and other contractual arrangements is not only an earmark of civilization but an absolute prerequisite.

EDWARD P. SCHARFENBERGER