A window of opportunity for unlicensed broadband

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Act Now to Open a Window of Opportunity for Unlicensed!

by Harold Feld, Tales from the Sausage Factory

According to my sources, members of the Senate Commerce Committee are actively considering using the DTV transition bill to open new spectrum to unlicensed access. This could include opening current Channels 2-4 after the broadcasters vacate it, or pushing the FCC to finish the "white spaces" proceeding.

It is supported by a number of tech companies, who want to see broadband widely deployed so they can sell more stuff. It is also supported by a number of public interest groups, community wireless networks, and wireless ISPs, because this means cheap ubiquitous mobile broadband for all Americans and all the social and economic benefits this brings. It is opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters and cell phone companies, who dislike the thought of wireless competitors and/or believe that we haven't advanced much in radio technology to avoid interference since God apparently made the TV allotment tables in the 1950s.

On October 19, the Senate Commerce Committe will consider bills for the DTV transition and possible amendments. If the members of the Committee hear from people that they want unlicensed access to build America's broadband future, we can make it happen.

You can get a list of the members of the Senate Commerce Committee here. Whether you are from a state on the list or not, please call and tell them you want to see spectrum made available for unlicensed use as part of the DTV transition (both a national band and white spaces).

For a more detailed analysis of what is going on, see below.

For those just tuning in --

First ��� getting unlicensed spectrum access in the broadcast bands would provide opportunities for ubiquitous, cheap mobile internet access. You can read a detailed article on why I think so here. And if you take a look at the FCC proceeding on whether to allow unlicensed access in the broadcast band ���white spaces��� (MB Docket No. 04-186), you will find a whole lot of tech companies think so as well. Cisco, Earthlink, Microsoft, Intel, as well as more entreprenurial companies like Shared Spectrum and Tropos, all agree that the physical characteristics of spectrum in the TV broadcast bands makes this the Holy Grail of spectrum policy. It takes much less energy to send signal, so sending signal is cheaper and batteries in mobile devices last longer. The signal will penetrate solid objects, so no worries about signals blocked by trees. And, argue a great many people, radio technology has reached a point where we can share the spectrum without interfereing with each other.

[���white spaces��� are unusued broadcast channels. Even in the most crowded markets, like NYC, some channels remain vacant to protect neighboring channels from interference. In many smaller markets, channeles remain empty because it makes no sense to build another TV station. How many TV stations can Duluth support? But they can sure use cheap wireless broadband.]

Second ��� Congress wants to finish the transition to digital television. When that happens, television broadcasters will hand back their current ���analog��� licenses and free up enormous amounts of spectrum in the broadcast bands. Because this spectrum is so valuable, Congress anticipates it can make between $20 billion and $100 billion by auctioning the spectrum to the highest bidder. This is most likely the cell phone companies, who want the new bandwidth to provide licensed data and video services as well as higher quality voice services.

In 1996, Congress gave the existing broadcasters the very valuable digital spectrum for free, and gave them 10 years to move from analog to digital. But Congress also left a loophole that if most stations were still analog in 2006, the broadcasters didn't have to give back the digital spectrum. To know one's surprise except members of Congress, the broadcasters made big promises and then dragged their feet on the digital conversion.

But times change and Congress now finds it needs the money from auctions in a major way. So, although the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is a pretty powerful lobby, the gloves have come off and the Congressional leadership have told the NAB that they will set a ���hard date,��� probably Jan 1, 2009, by which they absolutely positively must get off the analog spectrum and start using their more efficient digital spectrum. This switch will free up Channels 52-69 for auction, with 18 MHz (three channels) set aside for a national public safety band.

Now combine facts (1) and (2). A ���strange bedfellows��� alliance of tech companies, public interest groups, wireless ISPs, and community wireless networks have spent the summer trying to persuade Congress that setting aside some of the spectrum for a national unlicensed band or pushing the FCC to make the white spaces available will pay big dividends by stimulating the economy (businesses using the current unlicensed band or selling ���wifi��� enabled devices have grown from almost nothing to a multibillion dollar industry since the industry settled on the basic ���wifi��� protocols in 1999), and bring valuable social benefits from always on ubiquitous cheap broadband.

Best of all, if you use the white spaces, it is ���free money.��� Low power ���smart radios��� will not interfere with their high power cousins while making use of unusued space on the television band. Why let valuable spectrum sit idle when we have the technology to make it produce billions of dollars in GDP and improve our educational opportunities, telemedicine, and other social gains?

Needless to say, this has not gone unopposed by those who dislike the thought of competition. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), has fought this tooth and nail. So has the Cellular telephone industry association (CTIA), which sees ubiquitous, cheap wireless broadband as a potential competitive threat. Both have spent the summer arguing that if Congress approves unlicensed in the broadcast bands, teelvision will stop working, planes will fall out of the sky, and everyone will hate you.

Since ���intereference��� is one of these very technical things that few folks understand, whomping up fears on this is easy. The fact that spread spectrum technologies go back to WWII, that a dozen other engineers from tech companies and universities say that avoiding television signals is relatively easy compared to stuff we already do (we know where every tv broadcast station is, we know the shape and power of the wave, and we can build devices that ���know��� their location), doesn't matter, because the NAB can always argue 'sure, but we don't know because we haven't built these devices yet (and hopefully never will), so either prove a negative or don't let them use the white spaces.

The NAB has gone so far as to create this cheasy scare tactic ���educational video��� through their spin off org, Maximum Service Television (MSTV). If you click the link, you will find that it has no engineering data, just the narrator assurance that the mysterious device replicates what a proposed white spaces device will do. Of course, our poor little old lady viewer cannot use her new digital television set. Bad device!

You would think that in a world where the No. 1 movie has an animated dog chasing a giant ���were-rabbitt,��� that viewers would be a trifle suspcious of what they see on TV. Apparently, however, if you grew up watching these sorts of ���instructional films��� in elementary school, you have been conditioned to believe anything you see on a view screen accompanied by a voice over.

For those of us who lived through the fight to get low power FM radio on the air in 2000, this is deja vu all over again. In 2000, the NAB made a CD that purported to show what sound quality you would get on the average FM radio of you permitted low power FM stations to operate under the proposed rules. Despite the utter lack of any engineering explanation, lots of folks on the Hill were apparently persuaded that it must be true (and you wonder why these ���Nigerian bank account��� scandals work). (Subsequent independent study by Mitre showed the NAB claims were utterly bogus and there was no interference, but by that time, the anti-LPFM legislation had passed.)

Hopefully, Congress has learned from its mistake in believing the anti-LPFM CD in 2000, and will treat the broadcasters to a rousing chorus of ���Won't Get Fooled Again.��� As I said at the start, the Senate Commerce Commitee has shown interest in adding an amendment to the DTV transition bill that would create unlicensed access in the broadcast bands.

The first proposal on the table is to have language that directs the FCC to finish the white spaces proceeding it started in 2004. That was a project of then FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who was a very big believer in the power of technology and unlicensed specrtum. His successor, Kevin Martin, has shown little enthusiasm for unlicensed access (nor any particular hostility for that matter), and is unlikely to push to move the proceeding forward.

The second proposal is to create a national band, probably by clearing out channels 2, 3, and 4. This would become available after the transition (presumably after the ���hard date��� of Jan 1, 2009). Channels 2-4 are the worst for broadcasting, being subject to background ���noise��� and having less good propogation characteristics than the other VHF channels. (They also share the space with the interface for vcrs and dvd players, but these devices use shielded cable to avoid interference from outside sources.) As full power stations have made ���elections��� under the DTV scheme, most have elected to move out of 2-4 and go higher up the dial. As a result, it would be relatively easy to clear out these bands and use them for unlicensed access.

We need both these proposals. In some markets, access to white spaces opens up much more spectrum than an 18 MHz national band cleared by 2-4. Also, if the FCC finishes the white spaces proceeding, it can get unlicensed access in the broadcast bands rolling now. Waiting until Jan 1, 2009, means the broadcasters have until Dec. 31, 2008 to get Congress to change their minds.

At the same time, 3 MHz of space in the broadcast bands as a national band has enormous value for backhaul and wide area networks (it's less good for mobile devices, I'm told). Had this spectrum been available after Katrina, it would have been possible to set up high-bandwidth city-wide networks cheaply and easily.

The Senate Commerce Committee has scheduled October 19 (next Wed.!) as the day it will review proposed legislation for the DTV transition (a meeting called a ���mark up��� session). At the moment there is interest, but no language or definite sponsor for an amendment. Possibilities include John Kerry (D-MA), who made unlicensed access in the broadcast white spaces part of his tech campaign, and John McCain (R-AZ), who has pushed for spectrum set asides for public safety and has stood up to the NAB in the past. In addition, the amendment would need the support of Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AL) and Ranking Member Daniel Inouye (D-HI).

Even if you are not from the relevant states, please take a few minutes to call or fax (don't email, they just ignore it) members of the Senate Commerce Committee before October 19 to let them know you beleive in more unlicensed spectrum access to build America's wireless broadband future. You can get a list of the Commitee members here.

Opportunites like this do not happen often. When they come along, we must make the most of them.

article originally published at .
The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey