McAdams On: Spectrum… What is It Good For?
ABSTRUSITY– The failure to do a spectrum use inventory is one of the most
egregious shortcomings of the National Broadband Plan, and may even threaten to derail it in the long
run, as large corporations are allowed to sit on undeveloped spectrum even as
they whine for more. The upshot of the NBP—a marketing strategy for establishing
one man’s legacy as much as anything else—is that it will further consolidate
power among the most powerful communications companies in the country.
What about network neutrality, one might ask. Doesn’t the FCC’s codification of
network neutrality rules run counter to the power consolidation thesis?
Network neutrality is but a Band-Aid Brand policy statement designed to make it
seem as if giant carriers won’t have their sway. Plus, it’s downright silly.
Network neutrality purports to make Internet Service Providers let us search,
seek and download anything we want off the Web without interference from them. Search
engines already define the “worldwide” of what we do and don’t find on the Web,
so imagining the courts will uphold network neutrality on carriers is on the
side of delusional. Especially with Verizon’s hired guns taking on whatever
poor soul the FCC sends in front of the judge.
Ascertaining how much spectrum is being used for what, the state of build-out
on licenses not-yet deployed, and determining the most efficient and productive use of each frequency would be a big
job indeed, but not impossible. That’s what the National Telecommunications and
Information Administration, and the FCC, are supposed to do.
Now we all remember how several members of Congress pretended to demand a
spectrum inventory before granting the FCC authority to auction off TV airwaves
to Verizon and AT&T. And how our friend FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski
repeatedly pretended to promise one. And how lawmakers granted
auction authority with Genachowski saying that of course the FCC had a spectrum
inventory that no human has yet reported laying eyes on.
Yes, the commission has a “chart.”
Yes, it probably has a clue what spectrum is licensed for what use. But there
is still no comprehensive information available on how much spectrum already
licensed for wireless services has yet to
be built out, or if it will be. The one FCC
official who asked the question publicly of Verizon was shown the door
two weeks later. He clearly didn’t understand that the 10-year build-out
requirements for wireless carriers comprise letters to Santa Claus.
As someone writing to and for the broadcast industry, I suppose it’s easy to dismiss
my rants as a defense of that industry. This is not necessarily true. I am also
a citizen of a presumed democracy in which government officials are charged
with acting in everyone’s best interest,
not just their own and whoever gives them the most money. (No, really, that’s the
underlying principal of “democracy,” and not whoever dies with the most toys,
wins. That would be the pathologically narcissistic Gordon Gekko ethos of the
’80s.) And so the National Broadband Plan as written—and being executed—is
worrisome to me in more than one way.
Aside from being long on marketing frippery about how wireless data traffic is
exploding and the nation stands to make a gazillion dollars from one big
broadband network, the thing is short on cost estimates. Like everything else
perpetrated on The People by lower-case politicians, the pay-for—like the
spectrum inventory—is a pesky detail over which they can’t be bothered. Then
there is the assumption that a massive national infrastructure project can be
pulled off in this day and age. I defy anyone who drives on a road to accept
this premise without a hint of skepticism. If the country can’t fill its
potholes and keep sending kids to school, how is it going to build a national
wireless infrastructure? See all those fees on your wireless bill? That’s how.
We will soon recall $150 wireless bills with nostalgic fondness, like $1 gas.
And you can either pay up or be dismissed as a knuckle-dragging, techno-illiterate
troglodyte with no redeeming social value whatsoever—kind of like people who
now rely on broadcast TV. All under the illusion that the airwaves are public.
For the record, I have never argued here that broadcast TV is the best and
highest use of the spectrum between 54 and 698 MHz. It may or may not be—I
don’t have the expertise to know that, and quite frankly, I don’t believe a
bunch of lawyers in Washington, D.C. do, either. I’m told by engineers that
those frequencies are not ideal for wireless communications because of the size
of the antennas necessary. To that end, we do know that Verizon
was willing to get rid of the 700 MHz spectrum it acquired in the TV channel
reclamation of 2008 in favor of higher frequencies.
What I have railed against here since 2010, when the NBP was first released, is
that it was short on facts, omitted adequate prior planning, and overtly
favored one industry over another. If that were not the case, the mainstream
press would be full of stories about what frequencies are best for what uses
rather than wireless lobby talking points about “spectrum scarcity.”
As Prof. Jon M. Peha of Carnegie Mellon writes in his comments on the FCC
spectrum screen docket, “more capacity and more spectrum are not the same
He continues, “One cellular system with 20 MHz of spectrum can easily have a
much greater data-carrying capacity than a competitor that also has 20 MHz, or
even one that has 40 MHz. It is literally the defining principle of a cellular
system that the system is made up of cells, and capacity can be increased with
no additional bandwidth simply by deploying more cells. The issue is cost;
adding a cell may mean spending a half million dollars on a new cell tower.”
Presumably, new cells would have to be built to deploy any further spectrum acquired
from TV stations, so why is there nothing in the NBP quantifying the
potentially unused carrying capacity of existing networks?
Seriously. You tell me.