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April 24, 2008

Vermont Files in Support of Using White Space for Mobile Broadband Access

The Vermont Public Service Department and the Vermont Telecommunications Authority have joined in an ex parte filing at the Federal Communications Commission urging that the Commission “move expeditiously to adopt the necessary technical parameters … and help make this promising technology [use of the so-called ‘TV whitespaces’] a reality.” Given that the docket has been open since May of 2004, a little expeditiousness is certainly in order.

“TV white spaces” is the term used by the FCC but it’s a misnomer; no broadcaster has actually paid for any of the spectrum at issue; no one is using it; in short; it’s wasted. Originally, before cable and satellite TV and before the Internet, it was reasonably believed that this spectrum would eventually be occupied by a proliferation of over-the-air stations. That’s not gonna happen. Vermont has as much radio spectrum “reserved” for over-the-air TV stations as New York City – 50 channels worth. That “reserved” spectrum is not of any use to anyone and won’t be until the FCC promulgates some rules for its use.

The filing explains the many reasons why this spectrum is ideally suited to meeting the needs or rural America for much better broadband and cellular coverage:

“First, rural areas like Vermont have relatively fewer TV broadcasters and therefore more unused ‘white spaces.’ Moreover, rural communities also have the largest geographic areas without access to wireless services. Second, the ability of TV frequencies to propagate over great distances and difficult terrain provides an opportunity to reach locations too economically challenging for existing wireless services. Third, the use of TV ‘white space’ for the provision of rural broadband is an alternative means of accomplishing the Commission’s universal service goal of deploying advanced services to all areas of the nation without requiring additional funding mechanisms. In fact, the use of TV ‘white space’ could actually decrease the demand for universal service funding at a time when the level of funding is facing heightened scrutiny.”

The filing makes clear that the petitioners do NOT think that this spectrum should be auctioned off at a high price. The greatest public good will come from making these public resources available “at low or no-cost to those entities willing to utilize them for such purpose [broadband and mobile access].”

It will take the concentrated political power of rural America to free up this spectrum to meet the rural need for better communication. But this isn’t urban vs. rural; urban areas also have something to gain from better spectrum availability and nothing to lose.

Not to over-dramatize but I see this as the public interest vs. entrenched communications interests. The TV industry would like to sit on this spectrum without paying for it “just in case”; they also may be worried about Internet use of the spectrum becoming a competing “channel” for delivering entertainment. Traditional communications carriers benefit from LACK of competition in the US broadband market; they have no reason to want to see competition growing like weeds (or, more accurately, like WiFi) in fields of open spectrum.

Google and other “Internet” companies do have an interest in keeping their paths to the consumer unblocked; competition would be good for that. This post is about a proposal Google has made for putting the unused white space to work.

Disclosure: My wife, Mary Evslin, is Chair of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

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