Sound As a Dollar? The Propertization of Spectrum Resources and Implications for Non-Profit Community Radio in Guatemala

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Henderson, Victoria L.
radio spectrum policy , community radio , Guatemala , propertization , liberalization
This research analyzes Guatemala’s 1996 telecommunications reform, with an emphasis on how the introduction of private property rights in the electromagnetic spectrum has affected provision of, and access to, non-profit community radio, a critical media for the country’s indigenous Maya. The Guatemalan ‘experiment’ is the first applied test of Ronald Coase’s 1959 call for property rights in radio spectrum. To date, spectrum liberalization in most countries, including Canada, has upheld a model of resource stewardship in which the state retains ownership of the spectrum and a measure of control over frequency allocations. In Guatemala, by contrast, the state has ceded spectrum control to the private sector by auctioning off legal title to electromagnetic frequencies and allowing secondary markets in spectrum trading to develop. Formerly free under license to Guatemalan nationals only, FM frequencies sold with title under Guatemala’s revamped telecommunications law fetch as much as US$750,000 at auction. Broadcasting rights have disproportionately accrued to foreign nationals and commercial operators, while community broadcasters operating without title are accused of ‘stealing’ spectrum resources (causing interference on titled bandwidth), for which they face fines of between US$10,001 and $100,000 and up to six years in prison. Scholar-advocates and industry lobbyists credit Guatemala’s propertization regime with maximizing resource efficiency, institutionalizing justice, and offering rich and poor countries alike a practical model for spectrum reform. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and other critics, however, argue that the regime discriminates against those who lack the financial resources to purchase spectrum title and effectively bars non-profit community radio stations from legal access to the airwaves. This study traces the intellectual roots of (neo)liberal reform and examines parallels between geographies of inequality in Guatemala’s landscape and soundscape in order to demonstrate that the costs of enclosing and commodifying resources once held in common has consistently and disproportionately fallen on Guatemala’s indigenous population.
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