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McAdams On: Contrary Spectrum Developments

NOWHERE BUT UP: Let’s get this out of the way: February tornadoes are unnatural. Maybe it’s all that data traffic from smartphones. Who knows what the radio frequency cartage is doing besides skyrocketing. It’s all about innovation, right? Not really. Not in the United States, at least. While our friends in Europe actually are developing more efficient ways to use the airwaves, the hue and cry here remains, “more, more, more!”

This week alone, LTE broadcasting was demonstrated in Spain while researchers in Italy showed a way to increase spectrum carrying capacity by phase twisting radio waves. On U.S. soil, spectrum innovation involved the government going threat-level orange on low-power TV stations, and wireless industry heavyweights doing likewise to the government, like some weird, ironic dervish dance.

“We still have a long way still to go. There is more spectrum that we need. And the principle holder of that spectrum is the government, whether it’s the [Defense Department] or the FBI.” That’s a Bloomberg-reported quote from wireless industry lobbyist Steve Largent, speaking at an event held by, of all things, the Institute for Policy Innovation, a Lewisville, Texas outfit led by former Congressman Dick Armey that pushes deregulation and privatization.

Largent’s “long way to go” was a reference to recently passed legislation authorizing the Federal Communications Commission to reclaim up to 120 MHz of TV spectrum for the wireless industry, which got 108 MHz of it four years ago. Congress regularly peddles off TV spectrum to raise money, using wireless demand as an excuse. Now the wireless industry is going after government spectrum. The snake is meeting its tail.

This spectrum shell game was accelerated two years ago with the introduction of the National Broadband Plan, a mostly marketing treatise on why the nation must hand over the airwaves to AT&T and Verizon. President Obama codified the plan, which orders federal regulators to free up 500 MHz of spectrum for broadband by 2020. The agency in charge of spectrum management recommended the Department of Defense cough up a chunk. The wireless industry wants the chunk next door to airwaves already designated for mobile broadband.

That certainly makes sense for the wireless industry; not so much for the 3,000-plus federal licensees in the targeted band. The cost of moving them will be enormous, and it will not be the responsibility of the wireless industry. The $1.75 billion designated to relocate broadcasters is supposed to come from auction proceeds that would ideally go into the Treasury, so it is, arguably, an indirect tax. Sprint Nextel did not get so lucky. It had to pay the cost of moving broadcast auxiliary operations when it moved into the 2 GHz band.

Meanwhile, the FCC revealed its strategy for clearing the TV spectrum with or without sufficient volunteers, as prescribed by the auction authorization. Sixteen Class A TV stations may have their protected status revoked for failure to file Children’s TV Reports. Class A stations are low-power operations given the same status as full-power stations. If their Class A designation is revoked, they could be left swinging in the wind. Here’s broadcast attorney Scott R. Flick:

“Unlike Class A stations, LPTV stations were given no protections under the auction statute, leaving them at risk of being displaced into oblivion, with no right to participate in spectrum auction proceeds and no right to reimbursement for the cost of moving to a new channel during the repacking process--assuming a channel is available.”

Flick notes that the FCC traditionally fines stations for not having up-to-date programming files. Status revocation is the new fine.

So while spectrum innovation in the United States amounts to policy strong-arming, Ericsson and Qualcomm together demonstrated a way to bond cellular frequencies to broadcast data. That is, to use the spectrum like broadcasters do. A similar plan involving advanced data transmission over the broadcast infrastructure was introduced here in the United States as an alternative to spectrum reclamation. It went exactly nowhere. It does not fit the wireless industry agenda.

Neither does corkscrewing radio waves to get more out of the spectrum, as researchers have done in Venice, Italy. Here’s their abstract:

“We have shown experimentally, in a real-world setting, that it is possible to use two beams of incoherent radio waves, transmitted on the same frequency but encoded in two different orbital angular momentum states, to simultaneously transmit two independent radio channels. This novel radio technique allows the implementation of, in principle, an infinite number of channels in a given, fixed bandwidth, even without using polarization, multiport or dense coding techniques. This paves the way for innovative techniques in radio science and entirely new paradigms in radio communication protocols that might offer a solution to the problem of radio-band congestion.”

Why aren’t U.S. wireless providers spear-heading this type of innovation? Because it doesn’t serve them. The campaign to dominate U.S. airwaves does not begin to be about innovation. It’s about how much incremental revenue providers can squeeze out of subscribers. That’s certainly good for profit margins and those holding stock in the big wireless companies. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong or right about that, in my opinion. It bears no value judgment whatsoever.

What’s more relevant is whether or not the government is acting in the best interest of its citizens. The FCC is charged on one hand with assuring there is sufficient diversity of media ownership in this country to support democratic dialog, while simultaneously facilitating control of it by the few. Before this spectrum reallocation continues, Americans have a right to know how it’s going to be funded, and who gets access to the nationwide broadband network, and for how much.

The events this week in Spain and Venice demonstrate that there are alternatives to spectrum reallocation that could possibly be cheaper and lead to opportunities and services not yet imagined.

So, who is John Galt? Definitely not the U.S. wireless industry.

~Deborah D. McAdams