Cronauer: Spectrum property rights inevitable
Delivering the keynote this morning at the 2005 IWCE Show in Las Vegas, Adrian Cronauer predicted the end of the existing spectrum licensing policy with a migration to a true property-rights regime.
“You have licenses selling for billions of dollars, literally. Somewhere along the line in the future… the FCC is going to try and pull the license or not renew, and the license holder is going to say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not right.’ So he’s going to take it to the court,” said Cronauer. “And they’ll get someone like Larry Tribe from Harvard Law…maybe Ted Olson. He’ll say, ‘Your honors, my client paid for this, and he paid a lot of money for it as well. He owns it… for the FCC to try to take it away from him, that’s a taking of private property.’ All you need is two of those three judges sitting up there to scratch their heads and say, ‘You know, you might have something…’ Once that happens, the whole regulatory paradigm is going to shift. People are going to act more and more like they own their licenses.”
Best known as the co-author of the original story for the motion picture “Good Morning, Vietnam!” and currently special assistant to the director for POW/MIA issues at the Pentagon. Cronauer is no stranger to telecommunications policy. He clerked for Federal Communications Commissioner Patricia Diaz Dennis and received the FCC’s Special Service Award. From there, he worked at a series of law firms in the Washington D.C. area for 13 years, finally becoming a senior partner at Burch & Cronauer.
Having accomplished most of his goals in the broadcast world in the ’70s, he set out to establish new ones. Working part-time on a master’s degree in media studies, he became fascinated with emerging communications technologies. “Satellite, fiber optics, direct distribution cable, and digital convergence, on and on.” Cronauer said. “It was all brand-new, and the people involved were writing the books as they were going along. I thought it would be a kick to write maybe a paragraph or even just a sentence of a book myself. And that meant I had to be a lawyer.”
In his master’s work, Cronauer became what he called “a bit of a media historian” and was fascinated with the way broadcast regulation had been written from its start at the turn of the century. “We have developed what is known as public trustee law, as opposed to private property law. All natural resources you can own–land, trees, water, oil, minerals. You can buy them, sell them, rent them; you can do that with any kind of public property. But you can’t do that with your frequency. Why not?”
He traced the existing regulatory environment to concerns over the broadcast industry being dominating by one company and fears that the explosively growing and powerful mass media would be partisan in nature. “There were a lot of politicians around that had made their reputations being trustbusters, breaking up monopolies like the railroads. There’s an old saying, if all you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail. For these politicians, their main concern was that broadcasting wouldn’t become a monopoly.”