McAdams On: Broadband Flimflam

WASHINGTON: Everyone has a cell phone, so service providers have but one way to increase revenues--sell more features. One of those features is full-motion video, e.g., TV. Cell-phone TV is just getting legs, so the last thing service providers need is a bunch of broadcasters offering the same thing for free. One way to make sure they don’t is to relieve them of spectrum, and two lobbies in Washington have figured out how.

The CTIA--The Wireless Association representing the big cell-phone service providers, and the Consumer Electronics Association, are proposing that over-the-air TV be moved to a low-power, distributed transmission scheme. The pair claim that TV stations with distributed transmission won’t need as much buffer spectrum, aka white space. They suggest repacking broadcasters in order to free up the white space for broadband.

Let’s not even bother with the fact that the white space has already been handed to Google and Microsoft. Let’s play like that regulatory abuse never happened, and that we can all have free broadband and cell service on Google’s ad-supported Nexus.

The broadcast lobbies objected to the DTS strategy, saying it would never provide the same coverage as high-power broadcasting. The technology for DTS was approved by the broadcast industry’s standards body to fill gaps digital signals don’t reach. TV stations across the country continue to work out reception issues from last summer’s DTV transition, when substantial areas of coverage were lost by many moving to VHF assignments.

Whether or not a distributed transmission system could adequately replace the current one is beside the point. Redesigning the broadcast television infrastructure while the last redesign continues is a waste of taxpayer money. The federal government put up a few billion dollars to transition public TV stations and the public to digital television. Towers, transmitters and antennas weighing tons have been put in place for a channel plan that was conceived of within the last five years. Studios and broadcast facilities have been outfitted with the necessary, corresponding digital technology.

The fed helped pay for the digital transition because the fed ordered it. The fed ordered the digital transition to give wireless providers more spectrum, which they got last year and have yet to fully use. Now who’s spectrum-squatting?

The CTIA and the CEA, like a lot of other anti-broadcast groups, are saying that using the spectrum for broadband would generate billions of dollars. The estimates are stellar. In this case, the pair say spectrum freed by repacking for DTS would bring anywhere from $36.5 billion to $65.6 billion. From whom? AT&T and Verizon, one would presume. Few other companies have $65 billion lying around, and the software guys know how to get spectrum for free. The CTIA/CEA filing suggests that such lucrative auction proceeds could help underwrite this new broadcast transmission system, though they don’t factor in the cost of the one that’s not yet entirely completed. Granted, cameras wouldn’t have to be swapped out, but just about everything necessary to transmit a signal would.

The many, many tons of gear Americans just paid for to accomplish the digital transition? That would be called, “scrap.”

There is the economic argument that nationwide access to broadband has the potential to increase small business opportunities for people in even the most remote areas. That might well be true, but phone companies will wrench underwriting from the fed to serve remote and rural communities, just like they’ve done for years with voice service. Estimates for the universal broadband service fund haven’t been floated. The end cost to the consumer has not been floated.

Money is the singular reason that every U.S. household, school and business does not already have access to broadband. It’s not at all about spectrum. The wireless industry wants to hold everyone hostage to exorbitant monthly subscriber fees for using what is purported to be the public airwaves. And by marginalizing broadcasters, they eliminate potential competition for mobile video services.

Tooth fairy, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, free market.