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Howard University considers selling its airwaves. Is this the end of WHUT?

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick is considering selling the school’s valuable TV airwaves. (Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Howard University might sell its valuable TV airwaves as a part of the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial auction, a move that could put the future of its public television station WHUT-TV in jeopardy.

The premier historically black university owns the rights to what’s known as a spectrum, airwaves used to carry the signal for its television station. Cell service providers, which are seeing exploding demand for mobile broadband, are clamoring to get their hands on those airwaves because they can carry signals through walls and across long distances.

[Our wireless future will be decided by one obscure auction, and nobody’s quite sure how it’ll go]

“There is the potential for the university to realize significant income as a result of the sale of its spectrum,” Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick said, in an Oct. 16 letter to the university community obtained by The Washington Post. “The upcoming incentive auction of television station spectrum will be a unique marketplace. It is unlikely to occur again.”

Howard, in Washington, D.C., has faced financial challenges in recent years, with rounds of staff cuts, two credit downgrades tied to the fiscal health of its teaching hospital and allegations of financial mismanagement. Frederick, the school’s 17th president, took office last year and set out to bring in new revenue through the university’s intellectual property rights and sought-after real estate. It stands to reason that the president would contemplate a sale that could net the school as much as $461 million.

[Wayne A.I. Frederick named 17th president of Howard University]

“We could be talking about a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Chris Washington, president of the Howard University Alumni Association. “We could reinvest that into the core competencies of the university, build up our endowment and be less dependent on the money we get the from the federal government.”

In the letter, Frederick said the university is considering entering an auction in March, during which TV stations will compete against each other to sell their spectrum to the FCC, which will then resell the airwaves to wireless carriers.

If Howard chooses to jump in by the mid-December deadline, the future of WHUT-TV could play out in one of three ways: the station could be taken off the air, the school could partner or share broadcasting with another station or it could transition to a lower-quality VHF channel.

WHUT-TV, founded in 1980, is the country’s first black-owned public television station. It reaches more than 2 million households each year in the Washington area and airs a mix of student films, local programs and content from PBS. Through internships, the station also trains Howard students in programming, broadcast management and marketing.

“That spectrum represents distribution, the most significant gap in black media ownership globally. Once you lose it, it will never come back,” wrote Eric Easter, WHUT Community Advisory Board member, in a commentary on the sale for the Root. “More than just a learning opportunity for Howard students, WHUT and its studio resource are uniquely poised to be an incubator space for content makers from around the nation.”

Officials at Howard are remaining tight-lipped about plans for the station.

“At this time, Howard University will not speculate on what its choice or decision will be and what will happen as a result,” said Gracia Hillman, the school’s vice president for external affairs. “Whatever it chooses to do, that option will be implemented with a clear strategy.”

The auction is a risky bet. Unlike traditional auctions, where prices go up after the opening bid, the opening bid value will descend as the FCC auction proceeds. That means there is no telling how low the closing price will be; the federal agency pegged the starting price for WHUT-TV’s spectrum at $461 million to $184 million.

Frederick laid out all of these possibilities in the letter and said the university will announce whether it plans to participate in early December.

“Howard University must consider the significant financial opportunity,” Frederick wrote in the letter. “At the same time, we will consider the value that WHUT adds to the experiential learning opportunities for students and faculty … and the program and public service opportunities we provide though WHUT to its loyal viewers.”