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October 27, 2008

The Other Vote on November 4th

UPDATE: It happened. The FCC voted to open up the whitespaces for UNLICENSED USE (full post here).

The vote that Federal Communications Commissioners are planning for November 4 is not as important as the voting we'll do on that day, but it does matter a lot to the future of the United States. Unless the forces opposed to progress manage to postpone FCC action (which they are trying very hard to do), the FCC could decide to set the stage for another generation of innovative products with which the US will strengthen its competitive position in global markets AND to provide long term help to the whole American economy, which might well be more important than all the short-term band aids being applied in the current crisis.

There is an easy way for you to influence the FCC and it matters so please read on.

This magic bullet which the FCC might decide to fire is regulation which will make currently unused radio frequencies known as TV white space available for open and unlicensed use. As I posted Saturday, this action would be a huge boon to rural America which has lots of white space and too little high speed Internet and mobile phone access. But the advantage to the whole country of opening up this spectrum for innovation dwarfs the substantial benefit to us country folk.

Right now almost all radio spectrum is allocated to specific uses AND specific licensees. Each radio and television station, for example, has a slice of spectrum. Various marine and aviation functions have assigned uses; some spectrum is reserved for mobile phone use and has been auctioned off to carriers. The result of all this earmarking of spectrum is that, at any given time, very little spectrum is actually in use for any purpose and we have a spectrum shortage. However, when the frequency pie was originally sliced up, this allocation was the only method known for keeping users from interfering with each other.

But that's when radios were dumb and computers hadn't yet been invented.

Thanks to the foresight of some FCC staffers, a couple of slices of spectrum – little undesirable scraps, really, that no one else wanted – were set aside for UNLICENSED use. Anyone could build a radio to use this spectrum for any legal purpose so long as the radio was certified to follow certain rules including restrictions on signal strength which gave other players a chance to use the space as well. Owners of radios which use this unlicensed spectrum don't require a license.

You indubitably own several radios which operate in unlicensed spectrum. The WiFi hub in your house is one; the WiFi card in your PC is another; the Bluetooth headset you use with your mobile phone; the Bluetooth connection in your car; even Bluetooth and WiFi in your mobile phone all use unlicensed spectrum. Somewhat to the astonishment of traditional radio engineers, all this unlicensed use of spectrum works very, very well with no formal traffic cops. The little computers in the little radios figure out how to navigate by listening (I'm oversimplifying somewhat) and they recover gracefully when they do bump into each other – come to think of it, that's something like how the Internet works.

Anyway, it turns out that unlicensed spectrum gets filled much more efficiently than licensed spectrum AND that the most innovative recent radio products like WiFi and Bluetooth are all squeezed into these scraps of unlicensed spectrum which they have to share with microwaves and garage door openers. Also turns out that consumers often don't have to pay for using this unlicensed spectrum once they buy the proper radios; you don't pay to use WiFi in your home or Bluetooth in your car. The radios are cheap because they have a mass market. In other cases there are commercial services, like WiFi hotspots, which can be delivered efficiently to a transient audience because people have WiFi radios and because the spectrum is available to use.

Now back to the TV white space. It is very good spectrum; that's why TV stations uses part of the range that it covers. It goes through walls and most trees. There's a huge amount of it available AND CURRENTLY UNUSED. If we got a lot of innovation from just a little unlicensed spectrum, it's reasonable to assume that we'll get a lot more innovation if there's a lot more spectrum available. We could easily get mobile Internet access with much higher bandwidth than cable currently delivers at a much lower cost and with full mobile availability (Google claims gigabyte speeds are easily possible) . Who knows what exciting applications would be built on top of that? I don't. That's what innovation is all about. We could also get much better mobile phone coverage at much lower prices – very important as the functions of phones take on more and more computer functions.

We could get much more entertainment from many more sources over unlicensed spectrum than we do over the proprietary spectrum allocated to TV stations – do you think that may be why the National Association of Broadcasters is so adamantly against the use of the so-called "TV white spaces"?

OK. On to the future of the country and our economy. The US used to dominate Internet innovation because widespread consumer use of the Internet began here. The newest equipment was developed (but not usually built) here; the newest services were developed AND hosted here; at one point most international Internet traffic passed through the US. None of this is true anymore. We lag much of the developed and some of the developing world in broadband penetration. We pay more for less bandwidth than many of our peers. Innovation happens where the early-adopter markets are. Much innovation which requires broad availability of reasonably priced very fast access is happening in Japan and Korea where that access is much more available than it is here.

If we are the first country to free a substantial portion of spectrum for innovation, we will have a huge head start in developing equipment and services which use that spectrum. The world WILL move to largely unlicensed spectrum (says I). We have a chance to lead and all the opportunities that leadership entails; or we can keep our spectrum locked up to protect broadcasters against competition and watch China or India take the lead and the benefits of leadership.

It's not only our tech industry that will benefit if the FCC votes the right way on November 4th. All of our industry will be more competitive if we have better access to information and to each other. We can't afford NOT to have the world's best communication infrastructure. We once did; we can again. We can't afford to have our kids or us lifelong learner adults disadvantaged in access to information. We are now disadvantaged compared to many countries; the disadvantage is growing. Communication infrastructure CAN become America's competitive edge – if the FCC acts to make it happen.

The immediate push by the NAB is to postpone the vote of the FCC on the grounds that not enough time has been allowed to study the issue. In fact the docket has been opened since 2004. This has been going on longer than the current Presidential campaign; we're ready to vote for President and the FCC has enough information to make a decision on white spaces. Delay means that FCC Chair Kevin Martin, who is the main proponent of opening up the white spaces, will be gone. As the NAB well knows, a new Chair and new FCC commissioners will take a long time to familiarize themselves with this tough issue. It's not something that's come up in the presidential campaign (unfortunately) do no quick action'll come from the top.

We could easily lose a year or so by delaying this vote at the FCC. That's plenty of time to lose any chance of taking leadership in this new technology.

You can help by either e-signing an online petition (provided by Google but you can change the words) or by using the FCC's e-filing system here - be sure to enter docket number 04-186 if you do. It's actually a simple form. There's no need to say much; just let the FCC know you're in favor of a favorable vote on unlicensed use of TV white spaces and that the vote should happen as scheduled on November 4..

Please do act quickly. The deadline for public comment is TOMORROW, Tuesday, October 28 Extended to Friday, Oct. 31, 5:30PM ET!

More on unlicensed spectrum from this blog:

Act Now for Better Internet Access

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

Internet 2.0 is Open Spectrum

Backstory of Open Spectrum Epiphany

Spectrum Serendipity

Google's Gigabit Gambit


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