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.