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January 13, 2009

Good and Not So Good News

Julius Genachowski, Obama's nominee to head the FCC, is a friend of Fred Wilson. Fred gives ten reasons why he likes the nominee on his blog. Genachowski was a top technology advisor to Obama during his campaign and reportedly advised the campaign on its superb use of the Internet. He is also a supporter of "net neutrality" although the devil is in the details on that issue. Even though the nominee is a lawyer, he has business experience as a VC, as an Internet executive, and as a board member of various Internet companies – all good reasons to be hopeful about this very important policy post.

That's the good news.

The bad news from several days ago is that the Obama transition team has recommended that the cutover to all digital TV be postponed. That also delays the time that spectrum purchased in the recent 700Mhz auction and spectrum in the socalled "TV whitespaces" can be put to productive uses such as more Internet access and increased mobile access – especially for mobile data. This cutover has been scheduled for February 17th of 2009 since 2005. The cutover date – which affects only those receiving over-the-air television – has been widely publicized and $40 coupons have been available from the government to subsidize the purchase of converter boxes by those who would otherwise lose signal.

The fear – supported by exFCC Chairmen Powell and Kennard – is that some people are not ready for the transition. There has been the kind of government screwup that we've become accustomed to: not enough coupons are available because the legislated funds for coupons are exhausted and, apparently, no one thought to ask Congress for more. Some people have had to wait and are still waiting for coupons. However, since it would take legislative action to extend the deadline, it would seem more constructive to just take legislative action to put a little more money in the pool – the coupons won't cost anything if they aren't redeemed. We're not talking about bailout type sums here.

Anyone who is unaware of the transition hasn't been watching television. How many times have you seen ads about it even though you watch through cable or satellite TV and aren't affected? If people aren't watching TV, they won't be affected.

The truth is that small delay won't matter a lot to the world if it remains a small delay. But uncertainty will slow the flow of investment dollars into the technologies to use the whitespaces; these days it doesn't take much to chill investment. Moreover, this is an areas where the interests of the broadcasters are directly opposed to the public interest: the longer we wait for better broadband access, the longer the broadcasters can postpone the day when we get most if not all of our news and entertainment over the Internet. Prolonging the use of an old technology –analog TV – at the expense of a new technology – availability of the whitespaces as open spectrum – is counter to all that we need to do to make the United States as competitive as it needs to be.

But a friend of Fred's is a friend of mine. If the new FCC Chair acts vigorously to promote the whitespace/free spectrum experiment, if he leads the Commission to moves quickly to retarget the Universal Service Fund to communication broadly writ instead of to obsolete landline phone service, if he helps bring about a competitive communications industry in the US where the need to regulate might even disappear, then whether we delayed the digital transition a few months won't be worth remembering.

Good luck, Julius Genachowski.

Please see here for why the white spaces are so important.

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