Roasting the Regulators To Burn Down the House

At least the FCC’s not pretending to be impartial about handing more spectrum to cell-phone companies to satiate that industry’s shareholders. The hiring of Duke University Professor Stuart Benjamin as the commission’s first so-called Distinguished Scholar in Residence represented the most blatant thumb-nosing at broadcasting by the agency to date. The professor’s “Modest Proposal” to regulate the broadcast industry out of existence suggests he may not be altogether impartial. It’s just a hunch.

Benjamin is of the school that everyone subscribes to cable or satellite already, so why not use the airwaves for broadband, which to hear tell is going to cure obesity, attention deficit disorder and pattern baldness throughout America.

It can be deduced that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s ordination of Benjamin smacks of laziness. There is little intellectual rigor evident in the pursuit of wholesale, nationwide spectrum reallocation based on pay TV subscription numbers.

First of all, a substantial portion of those households still use over-the-air reception. Second, dismantling the broadcast TV industry is anticompetitive. These regulators may believe a majority of Americans can choose between multiple cable and DBS providers, because Washington, D.C. is a collection of buildings under a bubble of delusion.

Yet another pesky reality is that if it were economically feasible for every man, woman and child in the United States to have access to broadband, they would have it by now. The phone companies would have made sure of it. But there is a great big space between Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles where lots of people live, but some just very far apart. The most remote households in the country—those most unlikely to have broadband, are probably the most likely to rely on over-the-air TV reception.

Are they calling their comments in to the new Web 2.0 FCC?

The only salient point of the currently espoused Big Bang approach to broadband provision is that a few political aspirants will feel really good about themselves before returning to lucrative private sector jobs with the benefiting companies. In the meantime, it will be a decade more before the households that do not have broadband get access to it at a price only former regulators can afford.

The national broadband “plan,” should begin with a thorough inventory of radio frequency spectrum. Layers of broadband availability and broadcast TV reliance should be added to the Census Bureau’s TIGER database, so planners could look at a map of the country, see areas of most immediate need, assess existing infrastructural resources and determine which would be easiest to light up first. Then the feds could instigate and support local agencies to develop, coordinate and deploy broadband systems.

The strategy worked in Claudville, Va. It may seem daunting and prohibitively cumbersome to consider deploying a national communications system community by community, but it has been done—by broadcasters and by phone companies. It would take more planning upfront, and more than likely save a lot of mop-up time in the long run.

A sweeping, one-size-fits-all plan may be attractive for the inevitable press conference, but the application will likely devolve into chaos. If this broadband plan actually is about people rather than Wall Street, perhaps the developmental focus out to be shifted accordingly.