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April 11, 2007

Spectrum Serendipity

The facts:

  1. In rural areas we don’t have very many over the air television stations;
  2. in rural areas we don’t have enough choices (if any) for broadband Internet access.

The happy conclusion: fact #1 can lead to the a solution to the problem posed by fact #2. The radio frequencies (spectrum) not being used by the television stations which aren’t here are ideal for use to provide very high quality Internet access at a reasonable price.

Over-the-air UHF television operates today in a frequency band from 470 to 806MHz not counting 608-614MHz which are used for radio astronomy. After February 7, 2009, which is the deadline for switching to digital TV, over-the-air broadcasters will no longer be allowed to use the frequencies over 698Mhz and new frequencies have been assigned to existing licensees.  The freed-up spectrum will be allocated to a number of new uses including public safety and “new wireless services”.  There is a fierce fight going on over how this auction should be conducted.  These frequencies are justifiably referred to as “beachfront property” since signals on them travel long distances and penetrate not only leaves but also walls.  That’s why they were used for TV to begin with.

Rural areas will have to fight hard to make sure that the auction does not result in frequencies being bought nationally and built out only in urban areas.  If past experience is any guide, that is exactly what is likely to happen.  But that is not the subject of this post.

The FCC has announced its reallocation of frequencies 470-698MHz (Channels 14-51) for over-the-air TV use post 2/7/09. Each over-the-air channel uses 6MHz of bandwidth.  These channels occupy frequencies which are even better for Internet access than the higher frequencies the FCC is getting set to auction off. Much more importantly, most of these channels are not used and not needed for broadcast TV in rural areas.  For example, only eight channels are allocated to stations based in Vermont because that’s all the channels there were claimants for.  By contrast, there are seven channels allocated to stations physically located in New York City. Bad for over-the-air TV watching here in Vermont; potentially great for wireless Internet access.

But – hold your hat – there is no current plan to make these channels which are “reserved” for TV use available for any other use.  Presumably this is because someday someone may show up and want to start another over-the-air channel here. This dog in the manger approach is terrible public policy.  The channels which aren’t in use here and in other rural areas could be a huge part of the solution to our lack of good Internet access. To repeat, many of these channels are idle today; even more will be idle in 2009.  They ought to be used.

Allowing for the fact that channels in use in contiguous parts of New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Quebec restrict the use of some frequencies in some parts of Vermont and even allowing for the unlikelihood that some new over-the-air TV stations will be started here despite the existence of cable, satellite, fiber-to-the-home, and the Internet, there is probably more unneeded frequency in this band available for immediate use in Vermont than in the whole slice of spectrum the FCC is getting ready to auction off.

FCC action is required to make that spectrum available. Microsoft, Google and others have suggested one technical solution for accommodating the fact that different frequencies are available in different locations. Broadcasters have predictably been critical of this proposal; they think it is “their” spectrum even if they aren’t using it or paying rent for it. Big telcos and cable companies aren’t eager for this spectrum to be put to uses which would challenge their effective duopoly control of Internet access.

To much of America, what happens with the unused frequencies could be and should be much more important than who manages to grab off the relatively small amount of frequency that will go in the planned auction.

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