Spectrum: The Mighty Get More

Spectrum now used for analog broadcasting fetched more than $19 billion for the government at auction in March, and could help provide the platform for nationwide wireless broadband networks to deliver advanced services including mobile TV.

(click thumbnail)With infrastructure like this wireless switch control room, Verizon Wireless could make a run at mobile TV dominance.The big winners of new licenses—groups affiliated with Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, and EchoStar Communications Corp.—already have nationwide communications networks and the desire to expand video offerings past rivals in cable and broadcast.

“It’s going to jumpstart mobile video,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Media Access Project. “EchoStar has an advantage over all these others in that they have a real reason to be doing this.”

Feld said the EchoStar development could spur cable into action in the mobile video front. Within days after the auction results were announced, The Wall St. Journal reported that the nation’s two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner, were in talks to fund a new $1.5 billion WiMax-based Internet partnership with a national footprint that would be operated by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire Corp., a Kirkland, Wash.-based provider of wireless broadband networks.

EchoStar, said Feld, is already leaning toward the mobile concept with its products such as SlingBox, which enables subscribers to time- and place-shift programming.

“These products are new ways Dish Network is expanding its ability to provide its pay-TV programming for its customers wherever they are—at home, at work, on travel, stuck in traffic, etc.,” an EchoStar spokesman said, declining to comment specifically on the auction results or EchoStar’s plans for the spectrum.


Another major development will be on the C Block, where Verizon won licenses to cover the continental United States and Hawaii. This block has open access conditions pushed by Google, which itself did not gain any licenses but could end up using the networks of others to conduct its business. It called the results “a major victory for American consumers.”

“As a result of the auction, consumers whose devices use the C block of spectrum soon will be able to use any wireless device they wish, and download to their devices any applications and content they wish,” said Google lawyer Richard Whitt. “Consumers soon should begin enjoying new, Internet-like freedom to get the most out of their mobile phones and other wireless devices.”

Gigi B. Sohn, founder and president of Public Knowledge, said the open access provisions will give users more flexibility to use hardware other than that provided by Verizon.

“At the same time, however, it is disappointing that new competitors and innovators won’t have access to the spectrum to give consumers the benefits of real broadband competition,” she said in a statement.

Feld said the open access provision failed to establish a genuine broadband “third pipe” to compete against cable and DSL broadband service.

“In many ways, however, this failure is good news,” Feld said. “With the distraction of a wireless broadband third pipe behind us, policymakers can turn their attention to real solutions for the problem of the cable/DSL duopoly that subjects Americans to high prices, slow speeds, and poor service.”

Verizon, citing FCC rules, was vague about its plans. “We were successful in achieving the spectrum depth we need to continue to grow our business and data revenues, to preserve our reputation as the nation’s most reliable wireless network, and to continue to lead in data services and help us satisfy the next wave of services and consumer electronics devices,” the company said in a statement.

No sooner did the auction end when Google amped up its lobbying on another distribution front, the unused DTV channels known as white spaces. Google launched a six-page letter to the FCC and called reporters to a telephone briefing after the auction results.

Whitt touted a class of WiMax devices he said could deliver billions of bytes per second. He said the devices could be ready for consumers in 2009.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin touted the success of smaller companies and those other than the large national incumbent wireless providers. Outside of those companies, 99 bidders won 754 licenses, including at least one in every market. But none will have the spectrum to compete on a nationwide basis.