Category Archives: white spaces

At George Mason University, Hear a U.K. Perspective on Spectrum

Over at TechLiberation, I ask the question: What’s the right way to allocate the airwaves? For years and years and years, the governing policy of federal communications was that the electro-magnetic spectrum was too “scarce” to be left to the devices of the marketplace. This kind of reasoning has always lacked substance.

I highlight the speech by William Webb, Head of Research and Development and Senior Technologist, OFCOM, the telecommunications regulator in the United Kingdom, that is taking place at the Information Economy Project at George Mason University School of Law – tomorrow, Wednesday, November 12. Click here to register.

And, for an up-to-the-hour perspective on some of the reasoning behind the FCC’s recent actions on white spaces, see my piece at BroadbandCensus.com on “Kevin Martin’s Incredible Silicon Valley Wi-Fi Adventure,” which I posted on Friday.

Net Neutrality and White Spaces Remain in the Limelight at Association Conference

I appreciate all the great traffic I’ve received in recent days for my posts about the white spaces issue. This morning I posted two news articles on BroadbandCensus.com coming out of the Wireless Communications Association’s conference in San Jose. Follow the links to read the pieces.

Net Neutrality Advocates: Wireless Carriers’ Network Management Must be ‘Reasonable’

SAN JOSE, November 7 – Emboldened by their summertime victory against Comcast, advocates of network neutrality said Thursday that the next front in battle for the principle would be against wireless carriers who make “unreasonable” network management decisions. read more

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s Incredible Silicon Valley Wi-Fi Adventure

SAN JOSE, November 6 – It was Kevin Martin’s day to suck up praise from Silicon Valley. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission – for about two more months – came to the Wireless Communications Association’s annual conference here on Thursday to be feted by many Googlers, including company co-founder Larry Page. read more

The Real White Spaces Debate: To Create or Abolish a Market in the Airwaves

By Drew Clark

WASHINGTON, November 4 – I’ve been following the “white spaces” for as long as it has been happening – four, maybe five years – and I must admit that I am surprised by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin’s sudden fondness for them.

Until the last days of his chairmanship, Martin never cared for this somewhat radical notion: allowing techies and community activists to spew electromagnetic frequencies in zones currently occupied (at least ostensibly) by the broadcasters.

In fact, at Martin’s first press conference in the spring of 2006, more than a year after he assumed his position in March 2005, I couldn’t even get Martin or his top aide to comment about the subject on the record. I’ll have to wait for the open meeting later today to get some sense of his motivation for doing so now, as he prepares to depart the commission.

Meanwhile, the white spaces debate has been changed somewhat by the reality of the digital television transition, which is set to occur on February 17, 2009. As companies involved in the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) get cleared out a large section of radio-frequencies, the next big question remaining is: can they be forced, or enticed, entirely out of the airwaves. With more than 88 percent of individuals receiving television from cable or satellite systems, this isn’t just idle speculation.

In July 2007, I posed this question:

Are white spaces a good idea? In pure Washington fashion, the answer depends on how you see the NAB’s future strength. White spaces makes the most sense if you still believe that broadcasters treat the airwaves the way Texans treat the Alamo. But for those who believe that the NAB is amenable to reason, and economic incentives, here’s the next puzzle: what will it take to entice broadcasters to sell, give up or vacate the remaining airwaves? There are plenty of telcos, techies, and community activists that believe they can do better with them. All they need now is a game plan to help the broadcasters out of their paper bag.

The entire debate between broadcasters and techies is, in reality, a false choice. Everyone knows that an airwave allocation established in 1952 is obsolete. There is no need to allow huge “white spaces” to remain between TV channels. But given this fact, does it make sense to preserve a system of allocation that keeps broadcasters and wireless devices forever mixed together in the airwaves? Wouldn’t it make more sense to undertake a bolder reconfiguration by dividing the airwaves up into large swaths of 42 Megahertz a piece (seven such slices would be available by squeezing broadcasters out of their zones), and either auctioning or designating those segments for public wireless use?

Yesterday, in Ars Technica, my friend and colleague Tom Hazlett lays out the digital television transition to yesterday. And he argues that the FCC’s push to santify the “white spaces” is about to make things worse. For another view on the subject, see Ars’ Matthew Lasar.

Broadcast Networks Seek ‘Time Out’ on FCC Push for White Spaces

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.

Google, the NAB, and a Third Way in ‘White Spaces’ Debate

By Drew Clark

Google co-founder Larry Page came to Washington last week to take on the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the lobbying group that represents over-the-air television stations. It’s a whole new adversary for the beleaguered broadcasters, who have been fighting cable and satellite television for years.

The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering a proposal, by Google and other tech players. It would allow tech companies to build electronic devices that transmit wireless internet signals over the “white spaces,” or the vacant holes in the broadcast television band.

“We have an ambitious goal called pervasive connectivity through ubiquitous broadband networks,” said Page, who is currently co-president of Web search giant Google, and the world’s 43rd richest man, according to Forbes. “To realize that vision, we need to change the way we allocate and manage the nation’s airwaves.”

Basically, Google wants the right to broadcast where the broadcasters aren’t doing so right now. And there are a lot of vacant channels to take advantage of, potentially offering a boon to the broadband-hungry technology industry.

Is the Radio Frequency Cop Missing in Action?

Why has the FCC, arguably the cop over both the broadcasting and broadband beats, allowed TV broadcasters to waste the nation’s choicest electromagnetic frequencies? Answering that question would take a detour in the spectrum politics of your grandfather’s generation. Broadcast television frequencies were allocated in 1952, under technological conditions far different than today.

Fears of interference 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 channel numbers vary from city to city, and will likely change with the transition to digital television (DTV). 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 observe their own geographic location, and then offer connections to the Internet only when such transmissions would not interfere with television broadcasts.

Doing this “makes a lot of sense,” and would put the nation on “a path where we are using 99 percent of our spectrum, rather than three percent,” Page said at the event, titled “Google Unwired” and hosted by the New America Foundation, which has strong ties to Google.

It is a technologically trivial task to make a device with a global positioning system (GPS), or that senses its radio-frequency environment before transmitting. These devices would guard against interference better than wireless microphones currently do, he said.

Can the White Spaces Genie Be Put Back in the Bottle?

For their part, broadcasters say that white spaces transmissions will interfere with your grandmother’s television reception. “At least three times, the tests that have been submitted by the proponents of wireless devices have either failed or malfunctioned,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the NAB. “Failure is not an option when we are talking about the future of DTV.”

Further, Wharton said, “once you have introduced hundreds of thousands, or even millions of devices and they fail, or start causing interference, how do you put the genie back in the bottle?”

As the lobbying battle has heated up, both the manufacturers of professional wireless microphones – like Shure – and the major sports leagues have joined with the NAB to try to stop the smart devices.

Page calls the broadcasters’ engineering claims “very much an imaged and created fiction.” He added, “The NAB has also, in the past, complained about satellite broadcasting causing interference. People pay attention to [the NAB, but] that doesn’t mean that it is true.”

The big problem at the heart of the white spaces debate is political: broadcasters have long been reputed to be a major lobbying force in Washington. But their alleged prowess didn’t stop Congress from wresting a quarter of the broadcasters’ frequencies away from them in Spectrum War I.

Why Are Broadcasting and Wireless Services Treated So Differently?

This brings us to another side – a Third Way, if you will – in the white spaces debate. 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.

Television spectrum is indeed a very valuable resource – for certain purposes. Broadcasters currently occupy 402 Megahertz (MHz) of it, at frequencies ranging from 54 MHz to 806 MHz. That means that NAB members are sitting on about 40 percent of the choicest frequencies below 1 Gigahertz (1 GHz). These are the frequencies that are powerful enough to pass through walls, trees and high-rise buildings. (They are giving up 108 of those Megahertz in the transition to DTV, and earlier this year the FCC auctioned off 60 of those Megahertz for $19.5 billion. Most of the rest is being devoted for public safety communications.)

Broadcasters obtained the right to use all these frequencies for free in the pre-Eisenhower era. Cellular telephone companies, arriving in the Reagan through Clinton eras, paid good money at government auctions to buy and reuse other, less desirable frequencies in the 1.8 GHz range. And somewhere along the way to the 21st Century, geeks and techies deploying new-fangled devices like low-powered wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) transmitters got FCC permission, on a free or unlicensed basis, to use the frequencies at 2.4 GHz at 5.8 GHz.

Broadcasters may be spectrum-rich, but they make very poor use of their frequencies. Less than 13 percent of American households watch television over-the-air; the vast bulk instead choose to subscribe to cable or satellite television instead. Wireless companies, by contrast, constantly use and reuse their frequencies. Wi-Fi presents a mixed bag: anyone who transmits at low power may use it, but overcrowding and other constraints can cause service to be spotty.

So what is the best model for deploying spectrum? There is currently a lively debate going on in academic circles about just this subject at the Information Economy Project at George Mason University School of Law. In the debate, Professor Thomas Hazlett of George Mason favors a property rights approach, while Professors Phil Weiser and Dale Hatfield, of the University of Colorado, reject the analogy of radio spectrum to land. (Disclosure: I serve as Assistant Director of the Information Economy Project, where I work with Law & Economics Professor Thomas Hazlett, who directs the project.)

While the spectrum-as-property-rights debate has implications for the white spaces debate, both sides agree that broadcasters under-utilize their spectrum. That was one part of the message conveyed by Page at the New America Foundation event.

Can a Third Way Satisfy Google and the NAB?

So does that mean that Google is right, and that vacant broadcast channels should yield to broadband? It’s important to consider an alternative – auctioning off at least a portion of the white space. The effort to do this has been promoted by CTIA, the wireless association, in March 2008. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin may be open to it.

I first heard about a variant of this proposal more than a year ago, from Tom Hazlett, 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 – after the DTV transition – into six segments of roughly 50 Megahertz a piece. 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 must bargain with incumbent broadcasters to entice them to either exit their broadcasting business, or to keep from interfering with existing broadcasts. (I lay out the spectrum math in this sidebar.)

I was surprised, though, by the reaction that I witnessed to this proposal in Queenstown. Rather than skepticism, a wide variety of the attendees at the Aspen event – the country’s telecom elite – were simultaneously intrigued and even tentatively supportive of what is, after all, a very radical idea: potentially clearing broadcasters entirely off the airwaves.

In an interview, Wharton dismissed the proposal as unrealistic. “Why would we want to exit a business that we think has served the American people quite well?” Further, Wharton said, broadcasters “like being broadcasters, and serving communities, and being a part of communities. We have a broadcast system based on localism and service to community that is the envy of the world.”

However, to my surprise, Wharton was quite open to the CTIA proposal. He said that a licensing system “certainly makes a whole lot more sense than having these devices put into the market without protection.”

More to the point, however, is what Google itself thinks of selling off the white spaces. At the New America event, I asked Page what he thought about clearing broadcasters and auctioning the band. To my surprise, he replied: “I would be open to any of those things. We have proposed some things like that.”

Speaking specifically about auctioning off big blocks of radio frequencies, Page said: “Having a band manager that bought some spectrum, and then wholesale auctioned it would be a very positive thing. That would be a wonderful thing to have happen.” The tougher point, he agreed, would be enticing broadcasters to make changes.

Concluding Questions

Let me conclude this article with a series of questions about these proposals, each aimed at driving the public policy debate on this subject forward:

  1. What would be, in an ideal world, the optimal amount of spectrum to be set aside for public and unlicensed wireless transmission? Should none, one, two or more of the six 50 Megahertz bands be allocated to unlicensed use?
  2. Are there any broadcasters out there who would, if given a legal opportunity, exit the business of over-the-air broadcasting, and turn themselves into, effectively, cable-, satellite-, and Internet-only “broadcasters?”
  3. The value of the broadcasters’ right that cable operators “must carry” broadcasting signals over cable systems is a big subject that has to be addressed. Does the cable industry need to be enticed into a deal, as well? How much is the “must carry” right worth, and how does that stack up against the goal of liberating the broadcast bands for other, and more productive uses?

Don’t forget to read the sidebar on the spectrum math!

Drew Clark is Executive Director of BroadbandCensus.com, a FREE web service with news and information about competition, speeds and prices offered by high-speed internet providers. He can be reached via e-mail: drew at drewclark.com.