Here We Come to Save the Spectrum!
by Nancy Scola, Sun May 27, 2007 at 10:59:49 AM EDT
Wednesday was the final day for the public comments to the FCC on what to do with the 700 MHz radio spectrum, that chunk of the public airwaves that will be returned by broadcasters to the federal government once we finally complete the Congress-mandated switchover to digital TV in 2009. (Radio Spectrum 101: Through some combination of fairy dust and good vibrations, everything from television programming to cell phone conversations is constantly traveling through the air all around us. The pathways -- or frequencies -- through which they travel are known collectively as the "radio spectrum." In the U.S., it belongs to the American people and the FCC manages it on our behalf.) People into telecom are salivating over this 700 MHz "beachfront spectrum" because it's pretty sweet -- it has the ability to cut through walls and through mountains. The FCC is in the process of deciding what we should do with this good stuff.
Now, why does this matter? I'd argue two main reasons -- connectivity and innovation. New wireless technologies that run on the 700 MHz band could compete with existing telecom cable providers to bring broadband Internet and reliable cell phone service to every un-served and under-served corner of the country.
Some of the comments the FCC got in this week look like great first steps towards a good use of the airwaves.
A coalition of groups including Public Knowledge, Free Press, and the New America Foundation detailed basic principles the 700 MHz process should follow. They want to encourage small innovators to have a fighting chance in the process by keeping the process anonymous and excluding the big telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon. Licensees would have to use the spectrum they get and agree to principles of wireless neutrality. Perhaps not surprisingly, Google has a clever new plan for the auction's mechanics. Spectrum allocation today is inefficient -- small chunks of it go unused or underused all the time. Google's plan is similar to their AdSense's method of on-the-fly leasing of micro-bits of online real estate. Google Spectrum would let licensees release small parts of unused spectrum to other innovators.
The future of 700 MHz is telecom policy wonkery with considerable real-world impact. If you believe in the power of broadband Internet, hate your cell phone service, think it's silly that buying an iPhone requires signing a multi-year contract with AT&T, are driven crazy by the idea that American early-adopters are less cutting-edge than the average Japanese school girl, then what becomes of 700 MHz spectrum is important to you.
In the early days of telecommunications in the U.S., consumer choice was limited. It amounted to "do you want to pay for your phone company-issued black handset (a) upfront, or (b) in monthly installments." Why? Because the telecom companies argued that strong and healthy networks required that they and only they control what consumers did with them. In 1956, the powers-that-be decided that argument didn't float and opened our communications networks, which brought us the modem, which brought us the early Internet. We're at a similar moment in time.