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March 14, 2007

Internet Alternatives: A Good Beginning

The big Internet news yesterday was almost ignored in all the hullabaloo about Viacom suing GooTube. A coalition of Microsoft, Google, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Intel and Phillips have been urging the FCC to allow frequencies in the 700MHz spectrum which will become available in 2009 to be used for highspeed wireless Internet access.  The news, according to a story in the Washington Post (hat tip to Galeal), is that Microsoft has built a prototype which finds and uses vacant frequencies and the coalition is supposed to have delivered that to the FCC for testing yesterday.

These are much better frequencies for this purpose than the much higher frequencies now used for WiFi and most other wireless Internet services.  These frequencies go through rain, walls, and leaves:  that’s why they were good for TV.  That’s why they’d be great for highspeed Internet access (they don’t go around corners, though).

The FCC has already mandated that all TV go to digital broadcast by 2009. Since digital signal needs far less spectrum than the old analog signal it replaces, many more channels will become available. TV stations can retain some of these channels by using them for new content but others will remain vacant in specific markets.  In rural markets many channels are already vacant.

In the Washington Post: “Several analysts said a TV-spectrum system might make the most sense in rural areas, where high-speed Internet access via phone or cable lines is expensive to deploy. Small companies might build some towers, beam white-space spectrum to farm homes and cabins, and connect it to an Internet provider, they said.”

This could be a big help to Vermont’s e-state plan under which the state will build towers in underserved areas and rent space to WISPs for radios. Assuming legislative approval of the plan, the towers will already be coming online by 2009.  And the Microsoft device or similar ones by competitors will find plenty of unused television frequency here to recycle.

From a national point of view, it is extremely important that we have competition in Internet access beyond the duopoly of telcos and cablecos who have not served us well.  If we had real competition, most of us – urban and rural – would have the kind of broadband speeds available at the kind of prices that our friends in much of developed Europe and Asia enjoy. If we had real competition, we wouldn’t have to think about the dangerous possibility of Internet neutrality legislation.

Because reusing the television spectrum for Internet access DOES threaten the duopoly, Microsoft et al will have much more work to do on the lobbying front than they will on the technical front to make sure this spectrum is available for this use.  It is an understatement to say that this is a telco-friendly FCC.  The good news is that the selfish interests of the tech firms are at odds with the selfish interests of the telco/cableco duopoly; the public may well be the winner in this battle of titans if the powerful telco lobby can be neutralized.

Rich Whitt, Google's telecom and media counsel in Washington, is quoted as saying: “It [the coalition]recognizes that the heart of the problem is a lack of competition on the broadband platform. We're very interested in finding ways to create platforms for other broadband connectivity.”

Ultimately, this is related to the fight between Google and Viacom.  Viacom now buys rights to content from the content creators and packages it into channels for resale. The Internet has made channels obsolete but there is not yet enough Internet bandwidth available in most places to deliver all that content to consumers and much of it is tied up contractually. When that bandwidth does become available – and it will – and as those contracts expire then new mechanisms will develop which allow consumers to purchase exactly that content (or packages of content they want) for Internet delivery. The middleman delivery role will shrink.  The search role will grow.

Ironic but highly appropriate that frequencies (channels) once used for over-the-air TV now be part of the next generation of communication.

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