By Drew Clark
WASHINGTON, October 23 – The top executives of the four major broadcast networks on Thursday urged the head of the Federal Communications Commission to delay a vote on a politically simmering issue that pits broadcasters against Google and high-tech executives.
In the letter, the CEOs of CBS Corp., NBC Universal and Walt Disney, and the chief operating officer of News Corp., urge that the FCC exercise caution before taking irreparable action with regard to the vacant television channels known as “white spaces.”
Google and the other technology executives, including Microsoft, Motorola, Philips and others, want the FCC to authorize electronic devices that capable of transmitting internet signals over vacant television bands.
The network executives – CBS’s Leslie Moonves, Disney’s Robert Iger, NBC’s Jeffrey Zucker and Peter Chernin of News Corp. – want a time out.
They join their local broadcasting colleagues, as well as manufacturers and users of wireless microphones, like the National Football League and Broadway theater owners, who have been actively lobbying the issue.
The broadcasters want the FCC to delay a pending report and subject the technically-laden document to peer review by engineers.
“It would be unprecedented to let the FCC take action of something of this importance, which could potentially introduce considerable interference into the television band, without allowing the public to comment,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president at the National Association of Broadcasters.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is scheduled to release the white spaces report at a commission meeting on Tuesday, November 4, which is also Election Day.
Both advocates and critics of the white spaces proposal expect that the report by the agency’s Office of Engineering and Technology could pave the wave for widespread use of devices transmitting in the white spaces.
Traditionally, advocates of white spaces have been politically out-gunned. Non-profit communications enthusiasts, including officials at the New America Foundation and the Media Access Project, have been promoting the concept for years. But until recently, broadcasters have held sway among FCC commissioners.
Fears of Interference
Broadcasters’ fears of interference have kept stations far, far, apart on the television dial.
That’s why even today, if you live in Washington, DC, no more than four of the 21 channels between 30 and 50 are occupied: 32, 45, 47 and 50. That leaves 17 available as white spaces. The FCC’s allocation of TV channels was set in 1952.
The channel numbers vary from city to city, and will likely change with the transition to digital television (DTV) on February 17, 2009. Still, a lot of unused real estate is and will remain vacant in the sky.
Google’s solution: the FCC should give the industry permission to build smart electronic devices that will automatically “sense” their own geographic location, and then offer connections to the internet only when such transmissions would not interfere with television broadcasts.
In the Thursday letter, the network executives don’t extensively rehash the arguments against interference.
Indeed, they say that their companies “have worked with [broadcasters] and other interested parties toward a final plan to utilize white spaces in the television band because we recognize that better utilization of spectrum could mean improved broadband deployment, especially in rural areas, and economic growth nationally.”
Rather, they highlight their concern about potential irreparable consequences.
“The FCC has to get this matter right the first time,” said the executives. “If millions of unlicensed devices flood the market in the next few years, and it turns out the sensing still does not work, … and the result is massive disruption to Americans’ #1 news, leisure and entertainment option, how will that damage be undone?”
The executives are fighting a rear-guard battle against stepped-up advocacy on the part of the tech companies, including Google co-founder Larry Page. Page appeared at a September 24 pro-white space rally on Capitol Hill.
And on Tuesday, October 21, Google and New America Foundation hosted an event at the search giant’s California headquarters entitled “Pervasive Connectivity.”
At the Tuesday event, Michael Calabrese, director of the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Program, urged: “take TV off the air” in a few years, according to the trade publication Communications Daily. Calabrese said that all of the TV spectrum should be for wireless broadband, replacing over-the-air broadcasters with cable, satellite and internet viewing, according to Comm Daily. (Also see this report from RBR.com.)
Who’s Right, Broadcasters or Techies?
Currently neglected in the current debate is a “Third Way.”
Instead of turning the white spaces into yet another political football between competing lobbyists, why doesn’t the government put these frequencies up for sale? It’s the kind of idea that you would think a warm-hearted capitalist company like Google would love.
That, at least, is the idea of Professor Thomas Hazlett of George Mason University School School of Law. (Disclosure: I serve as part-time Assistant Director of the Information Economy Project, where I work with Law & Economics Professor Thomas Hazlett, who directs the project.)
Hazlett favors taking a property rights approach to spectrum, and he elaborates on this idea in the October 3 edition of The Wall Street Journal (with Nobel Laureate in Economic Vernon Smith):
Allot all TV band frequencies to, say, seven national licenses, and auction them. (Competition could be ensured by a one-to-a-customer rule.) TV stations would be grandfathered, and continue to broadcast on current channels. But they would also be able to change channels or accept some interference with their broadcast signals. They would happily accept payments to make way for new wireless stuff. Band usage would be radically transformed.
This procedure greases the skids for efficiency, downloading politically arduous tasks to market specialists. Many wireless services, from PCS to Blackberry to MediaFlo, have been launched through such spectrum trades. Those deals only happen when owners can bargain. To free the airwaves, we must liberate them from the pre-World War II template in which they are now trapped.
I first heard about a variant of Hazlett’s proposal about 18 months ago, at the May 2007 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy, in Queenstown, Maryland. A long-time critic of broadcasters, Hazlett proposed dividing up the remaining 294 Megahertz – this is the spectrum that will remain after the DTV transition – into about seven segments of about 42 Megahertz a piece. (I lay out the spectrum math in this sidebar.)
Each slice could be auctioned off, or, as an alternative, cleared for use by unlicensed Wi-Fi style devices. The nut of the proposal is that auction buyers – presumably Google and the other technology giants – must bargain with incumbent broadcasters to entice them to either exit their broadcasting business, or to keep from interfering with existing broadcasts.