McAdams On: Spectrum Efficiency as a Hammer
April 8, 2011
LOS ANGELES: The White House held a meeting on incentive
auctions this week designed to motivate Congress to authorize them. Current law
holds that the proceeds from spectrum license auctions go directly to the U.S.
Treasury. The Obama Administration wants to split them with broadcasters who
voluntarily relinquish spectrum for wireless broadband.
The Administration needs cooperation from a Congress somewhat preoccupied in a
budget stalemate. The situation could work either way for broadcasters. The GOP
may want to withhold authorization because the National Broadband Plan is one
of President Obama’s pet projects. It may approve incentive auctions because
doing so will make members appear nonpartisan for at least 10 minutes, and
there’s no risk of public backlash over the issue. And that’s a shame, really.
The public seems woefully if not intentionally ill-informed about the National
Broadband Plan. The wireless industry and its allies in consumer electronics
have a lot of parrots in the media and the blogosphere happy to allegorize the
spectrum reallocation as a patriotic duty. Much of what’s been repeated
ad nauseam is about a “looming spectrum
crisis” that only reassignment of the television bands can avert.
This is absolute, straightforward cow patties.
A priori, any looming spectrum crisis brought about by addictive usage
of smartphones can be mitigated to some degree with mathematics. In the din
surrounding the National Broadband Plan, there’s nary a mention of increasing
the efficiency of wireless devices, applications and networks.
“Applications that are designed specifically for bandwidth-constrained networks
can consume significantly less data than those that are not.” That’s
Rysavy Research. “Efficient
browsers communicate only half the data of other mainstream mobile browsers.”
are becoming more
efficient, though the Administration’s decree to free 500 MHz for broadband
does not interpolate this. Forecasts for future usage--upon which rest the
justification for reassigning broadcast spectrum--primarily rely on recent and
current levels of data consumption and network efficiency based on 3G
technology. Fourth-generation LTE networks are twice as spectrally efficient as
3G networks, Smart MCommerce says, and
promise even greater efficiency going forward. There were zero LTE subscribers
in 2009 and just 700,000 worldwide last year. iSuppli predicts the number will
exceed 303 million in three years.
The president’s call for 500 MHz total, 24 percent of it from the broadcast
band, is a target, not a mathematically demonstrable quantity. A more precisely
extrapolated number is possible, but not politically desirable. The spectrum
reassignment maneuver is about monopolization of video delivery. Once the
wireless industry has wrested control of all broadcast spectrum (clearly the
goal... remember, this is the second offensive), it will have to implement
spectrum efficiencies because there’s only so much of it. I doubt the
Pentagon’s going to fork over its airwaves so I can watch dancing cats on my
phone while I’m waiting at Starbuck’s for just black coffee.
It’s either ironic or adept media manipulation that while the wireless industry
gets a pass on spectral efficiency, the broadcast industry is getting pounded
for not using spectrum efficiently. The argument here is that stations are not
using their 6 MHz to its fullest capacity. This postulation seems about as
demonstrable as needing 500 MHz for wireless broadband. There are something
like 70 channels on the air here in Los Angeles, many of them targeting
underserved communities. Those stations that aren’t multicasting are transmitting
full high definition. Six are sending out Mobile DTV signals. This is not even
two years after the DTV transition, up until which time broadcasters were
transmitting dual analog and digital signals and racking up the requisite
To infer that broadcasting is an inefficient use of the spectrum per se is
simply disingenuous. The least the Administration could do is admit that by
“inefficient” it’s referring to stock dividends. Otherwise, logic dictates that
alternative means of deploying broadband across the country would be proffered.
But they’re not, at least not by the Administration nor its foot soldiers at
the Federal Communications Commission.
Wholesale reassignment of the TV bands is probably the most cumbersome,
expensive, disruptive and time-consuming route to achieving nationwide wireless
broadband. The technical requirements and end-user demands of Custer County,
Nebraska and downtown Manhattan have approximately nothing in common. Custer
County would be far better off working with local TV, radio and phone providers
to launch a broadband network. Small and rural communities, the alleged beneficiaries
of the FCC’s plan, could get municipal networks up and running far faster than
waiting for the fed to hand spectrum to wireless companies that don’t invest in
remote communities now because they don’t yield enough revenue.
Clusters of community networks rather than one big nationwide one might mean
FCC chief Julius Genachowski has to occasionally change networks as he’s racing
through Nebraska on I-80, at least with his current smartphone.
Try as I might, I cannot fathom this to be a tragedy of mythic proportion.
~ Deborah D. McAdams