McAdams On: Spectrum Efficiency as a Hammer

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.”

Wireless networks 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 operating costs.

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