Group urges using auction revenue for public interest trust

Thursday, April 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Multibillion-dollar proceeds from future sales of the public airwaves should go to a trust so that museums, schools and other nonprofit entities can bring their resources to all Americans using new technology, a group of educators, business executives and civic officials said Thursday.

The study, sponsored by five major foundations, recommends creation of an $18 billion venture capital fund that public service and educational institutions could tap into to offer professional training, cultural programs and other information over new communications systems.

The money would come from revenue generated by auction of the public airwaves in the next several years. The trust, modeled on such entities as the National Science Foundation, would be overseen by board members from a variety of disciplines.

Libraries, civic organizations and universities with innovative ideas of how to spread their riches to all Americans could seek grants, for which an estimated $1 billion would be available each year.

The trust could bring to life a virtual Mark Twain to talk about history, an anatomy course beamed to nurses and doctors in distant places or a simulated field trip to Mars for school children, said Lawrence Grossman, former president of NBC News and PBS, who co-authored the study.

While people have discussed the tremendous commercial possibilities created by new digital technologies like the Internet, ``nobody has focused on the potential for education and civic information,'' he said. The proposed trust addresses ``all the things society very much needs.''

The trust would be aimed at delivering a broader breadth of civic, cultural and educational content over advancing delivery systems, like digital television or the Web, Grossman said. The money would not be used for hardware or infrastructure but would prompt groups to take advantage of technology already in place.

For example, institutions could make archives available on CD-ROM or offer training courses via satellite.

The report suggests the trust could be able to use the public broadcasting system as it moves from analog to digital service. That switch will give TV broadcasters greater capacity so they can offer more channels and even new interactive services.

Backers of the plan include technology executives from eBay, Microsoft and RealNetworks; the Librarian of Congress; the head of the NSF; and the president of the American Council on Education.

Proponents compare the proposal to the creation of land-grant colleges in the 1800s, except the ``land'' this time is another precious resource: the nation's airwaves.

It's unclear whether a plan to divert revenue from airwaves licenses auctions will be welcomed on Capitol Hill or in the administration. President Bush's current budget proposal already factors in $7.5 billion the government will take in over the next five years from auctions.

Although the foundations that sponsored the study do not lobby, Grossman said they have gotten an enthusiastic response from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The study was sponsored by The Carnegie Corporation, The Knight Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, The Century Foundation and The Open Society Institute.