It seems our telecommunications authorities just cannot rid themselves of the urge to give away valuable public assets for free. They tried it with third-generation (3G) mobile phone licences this year and were fortunately brought up short just in time when auctions in Europe showed 3G licences could be worth up to HK$40 billion here. Higher authority then told them to go the auction route although they are still trying to slip in give-aways. Now they have nullified a consultation period on digital television broadcast licences by saying once again that they do not intend to hold auctions. Digital TV, the next big thing, could be here by 2002. The up to six 'multiplex' broadcast licences proposed will provide super-sharp TV across up to 30 channels. It may cost a bit more - HK$7,000 at the moment for a digital TV set and up to HK$5,000 for a decoder - but dedicated couch potatoes will not think that much next to the price of a car. So let us dispense with the reservations of Legco's functional constituent for technology, Sin Cheung-kai, who doubts that broadcast digital TV will attract new investors as there are already a number of pay TV and free-to-air licences. Since when have Hong Kong people shunned the latest technology for the good old thing, particularly when the broadcast business in that good old thing consists only of four local channels that may or may not give you double vision shadows tonight plus, if you take in satellite, those abysmally dreary offerings from Rupert TV? There is bound to be plenty of profit in holding these licences but, while you can legitimately claim that the air waves over which digital TV signals will travel are a public asset, the proposal at the moment is to give you no share of that profit. The Deputy Secretary for Information Technology and Broadcasting, Eva Cheng, says the new licences will not be awarded through public auction because business prospects will be more predictable than for 3G mobile phone services. 'Operators cannot be sure about potential. But digital broadcasting is more conventional. That's why we prefer to assess applications based on merit,' she says. Ms Cheng, as Monty Python would say to such a hopeless non-sequitur argument: 'My hovercraft is full of eels.' What has greater certainty about business prospects (if it exists) got to do with the public's right to share in the proceeds from the use of public assets? If greater certainty about business prospects is a reason to give away public assets then why do we not give away property for free instead of auctioning it? No business prospects could be more certain in this town than profits from property development. So let's adopt the obvious reform and give all of our remaining land to Cheung Kong free. It is a ludicrous argument. The fact that 3G mobile is an untested business is purely a subsidiary reason for auctioning 3G licences. If no-one really knows what a business will be worth there is good reason for letting the market decide. It has taken our telecommunications authorities a long time to realise it. But this is not the principal reason to adopt auction or some other means of ensuring that the public shares in the loot. The principal reason is that those airwaves above us belong to all of us just as much as the public land beneath our feet. Our Government concedes as much by deeming itself to have the right to dispense these licences rather than standing by to let private interests shoot it out between themselves for who can steal them. So why legitimise what would otherwise be little better than theft from the public purse? This is valuable property, our property. Let's not throw it away.