Tuesday, October 28, 2008

White Spaces, In Contrast

The white space debate, for all its technical complexity, is otherwise very simple to judge. So many frequencies remain unused or dramatically underutilized – either in space, or in time, or both. A cognitive radio should therefore be able to fill in these blanks with useful stuff, such as Internet access akin to WiFi, WiMax, HSPA, EV-DO and LTE.

Most of these frequencies are between 150 and 850 MHz. This makes them particularly complementary to most of the cellular frequencies, who start at 850 MHz in the US (soon 700 MHz) and at 450 MHz in some other European countries (although mostly 900 MHz). Most other cellular frequencies reside between 1700 and 2200 MHz, while WiFi and most mobile WiMax launches are between 2300 and 2700 MHz.

These lower frequencies are used for things such as old-fashioned broadcast television and military applications. Some of those military applications have limited geographic scope, and many of the allocated television channels are also not used in most areas. Those are cases where this spectrum ought to be privatized outright, under any circumstance. At a minimum, this spectrum can be repurposed for as long as no interference is proven. Basically, there is no downside to trying. In this respect, the advocates of white space use legalization are 100% correct.

However, the white space argument is even stronger and ought to be taken at least one full step further. Over 90% of American households have cable TV, satellite TV, or some other form of non-terrestrial broadcast TV such as wired TV from a telco (Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-Verse etc.). This percentage has also been increasing. With only a few remaining households taking up this valuable real estate in the air, it’s beginning to look like the “bridge to nowhere.” Basically, we are foregoing an untold billion dollars (perhaps trillions) in consumer welfare just so that a tiny single-digit percentage of households can get to watch a handful of channels without paying for TV from cable/satellite/telco. This is a shameful exploitation of government property, at a huge expense.

The solution is of course very simple: The government a long time ago should have told the TV broadcasters that the game is up. No more any free ride. No more exploitation at the public trough. This is valuable real estate, which, just like almost all government property, should be sold to the highest bidders as soon as possible. Just this February, the sale of a few tiny thin slices of the 700 MHz spectrum fetched $20 billion. Imagine what the spectrum all the way down to below 200 MHz would fetch?

This idea isn’t new; I have been proposing it for years. The rebuttal has always been that this is somehow politically impossible. I have never understood this argument, because we talking about less than 10% of households who are exploiting the other 90%+. Any politician worth his salt ought to be able to explain that the only thing standing in the way of vastly more available, capable and lower-priced wireless broadband are a bunch of people who refuse to get cable/satellite/telco TV, just like the rest of us.

Some say those 10% are unusually poor, and need access to free TV. To this I say: If they are that poor, they are probably watching too much TV, and working too few hours. Daytime TV is also a bad influence, culturally. Besides, those same people who insist on watching free TV, are also the same people who smoke and drink for a lot more money than it would cost them to pay for the same kind of cable/satellite/telco TV subscription that the rest of us do. People shouldn’t have to run around and pay for each other’s entertainment habits. What’s next – government-subsidized movie tickets, opera passes or ballpark games? Wait – don’t give the new Congress any ideas…