Skip to main content

Slow Reform Stifles Wireless Broadband

I'm working now on my PhD in Journalism and Mass Communications, studying the structural changes in media during the last two decades of deregulation, and the most enjoyable part of my job is bringing The Word to wide-eyed undergrads.

As their TA in Introduction to Mass Communications, I think I've stunned those capable of being stunned (a surprisingly high percentage of my students) with a number of factoids: how much of their cable bill goes to ESPN; how many times Michael Powell met with lobbyists (more than 70) as opposed to the public (once) before the FCC passed recent ownership changes; and the fact that mosh pit "fans" at the MTV Music Video Awards are actually paid actors (this really shocks them. "You mean, they're not real?" asked one coed.).

Sometimes it takes awhile before they "get" how media function, how profits are made, how policy is influenced-and how little say consumers/citizens really have in the whole process.

But nothing caused more consternation than when I presented them with the following conundrum.

How much money do broadcast TV networks make each year in the U.S.?

Millions? Asked one. Billions, lots of billions, I corrected.

Who owns the spectrum the broadcasters use to transmit their signals?

This really stumped them. Finally one said, "the government?"

And who IS the government?

Blank stares.

Perhaps you see the problem. The "government," which in our nominal democracy is ostensibly representing "we the people," is managing a tremendous natural resource, airwaves, that most folks haven't the slightest clue is worth so much.

But this resource is limited; there's only so much spectrum to go around, with multiple new technologies clamoring for reliable frequencies. The FCC's current spectrum allocation system, according to its own former chief economist, Thomas Hazlett, "is inefficient, unresponsive to consumer demand, and a huge barrier to entry for new technologies anxious to compete in the marketplace."

One of the fastest growing, and most beneficial to society, of these new technologies is Wi-Fi, which is not only one of a handful of luminaries during the devastating tech slump of the past few years, but also holds the most promise for achieving broadband ubiquity.

But Wi-Fi and other promising wireless technologies of the future are artificially asphyxiated by older technologies gobbling up spectrum inefficiently.

Broadcast TV is the biggest culprit, by far (and, not coincidentally, the one with the most powerful lobby). Broadcasters could free up hundreds of Mhz of spectrum merely by shifting analog signals to digital. (Lower band spectrum used for over-the-air TV is particularly valuable because radio waves can travel farther, requiring less power, than higher bands.) This is expensive, they howl. But they stand on shaky ground.

Go back to the Communications Act of 1934, and it calls for radio licenses "to provide for the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof, by persons for limited periods of time, ...and no such license shall be construed to create any right, beyond the terms, conditions, and periods of the licenses."

After decades of being handed the means to make hundreds of billions in advertising revenues, broadcasters forget one key fact: they don't own their spectrum, we do. That they over the years have repeatedly eroded their civic responsibilities, originally envisioned as concomitant with their licenses, they conveniently ignore.


The issue of licensed vs. unlicensed spectrum is complex, but the fact remains that unlicensed wireless spectrum users could utilize unused TV bandwidth without interfering with TV signals. The FCC has been considering this, to further howling from broadcasters.

Another bugaboo is the specter of auctions. With spectrum so scarce, and government coffers so strained, there is enormous pressure to hold more spectrum auctions to raise money.

Bad idea, say prominent economists.

More than three dozen, including Hazlett, Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase, and others, more than two years ago urged the FCC to liberalize spectrum policy, arguing that the ability of new and existing license holders to use spectrum to offer any service-as long as it doesn't conflict with other spectrum users-would insert market rationality, and efficiency, into wireless bandwidth.

In the two years since, the Bush administration and the FCC have taken no dramatic steps to resolve these issues. Lawmakers have proposed various legislation to jumpstart wireless broadband, the president has called for a task force to examine the spectrum issue, Silicon Valley has been screaming for relief-all to no avail.

I try to point out to my students the benefits of having university-wide wireless broadband Internet access, and even try to bedazzle them with visions of future open spectrum dynamic sharing, in which software-defined "smart" radios will flexibly utilize underused spectrum, and can be linked together a la the Internet to add capacity with each new user.

When they look skeptical I remind them of some ancient history: the Internet. That was a shared, unregulated space that over time came to be used efficiently to vast effect. And nobody owns it.

They get that.

You can reach Will at