McAdams On: The Spectral Looming Crisis
7/29/2010 4:29:44 PM
Free broadcast TV service is facing displacement
by rhetoric, as characterized by three words--“looming spectrum crisis.”
The phrase generates 354,000 Google hits, mostly because some regulator, lobbyist
or lawmaker uses it in a statement and all of us in the press reprint it ad
nauseum. E.g., Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) used it today to announce a spectrum
buy-back bill he’s co-sponsoring.
“We are facing a looming spectrum crisis,” an intern on the Congressman’s PR
team seemed to make him say. “It’s very clear that the U.S. will need
additional spectrum to meet the growing demand for wireless broadband.”
Most such parroted assertions about radio frequency spectrum are as clear as Gulf
stream waters, and based on wobbly science. Notwithstanding the substantial
amount of spectrum wireless providers have yet to build out, the definition of
“broadband” itself is a study in elasticity.
Case in point, the FCC’s recent report that between 14 million and 24 million
people in the United States don’t have access to broadband. The figures are
predicated on download speeds of at least 4 megabits per second and uploads at
Ironically or something like it, Verizon’s broadband Starter Plan offers “up
to” 1 Mbps/384 kbps. The so-called “Power Plan” is up to 3 Mbps/768kbps (or as
Speedtest.net clocks it mid-afternoon in
Los Angeles, 1.25/560).
Only the $55 plan (that actually cost $85 a month because dry loop is a myth)
offers a download speed that meets the FCC’s definition. The upload speed does
not. Therefore, under the FCC definition of broadband, Verizon subscribers do
not have access to it.
The FCC noted that even if it dropped download to 768 kbps, 12 million
Americans would lack terrestrial broadband service. That would be roughly 4
percent of the population, or a fraction of the number who rely exclusively on
over-the-air TV service.
Recall that roughly 10 percent of American households--around 31 million
Americans--rely on over-the-air TV service. Those 31 million have been deemed
inconsequential by the industrial giants agitating for broadcast spectrum, and
making it seem patriotic. The notion that the American people are going to get
anything but charged for the Administration’s National Broadband Plan is a
The definition of broadband is also being questioned by researchers at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a report on broadband speeds, the MIT
team noted the FCC’s acknowledgment of the chasm between advertised and actual
broadband speeds. The FCC said it therefore was referencing “‘actual’ rather
than advertised or ‘up to’ speeds’” in its report. Measurement methods were not
indicated, and it may not have mattered if they were.
The MIT researchers found that common methods of measurement
underestimate the speed of the networks
themselves. (Speedtest.net included.)
“Speed measurements for the same service can vary significantly,” the MIT
said. “These differences arise from a complex set of factors, including
different test methodologies and test conditions. For any testing methodology,
teasing apart the end-to-end tests and attributing performance bottlenecks to
constituent parts is technically challenging.”
Bottlenecks do indeed occur on networks, but also within “home networks, end
users’ computers, and server side systems and networks,” the report said.
“Consequently, inferences regarding how ISP delivered speeds compare with their
advertised speeds need to be undertaken with careful attention to the testing
methodologies employed. Many testing methodologies are inappropriate for the
purposes of assessing the quality of a broadband network.”
The MIT study illustrates subjective assumptions in the National Broadband
Plan, which currently relies more heavily on buzzwords and banalities than
science and economic analysis. Any major technology policy overtly favoring one
industry over another--and consequently one group of Americans over
another--should be based on the most rigorously investigated criteria. A
spectral looming crisis is not one.