Stevens Bill Analysis Part I — The Good Parts (Unlicensed Spectrum and Program Access)

Senator Stevens (R-AK), Chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, has introduced a massive telecom bill. The ten sections of the Communications, Consumer Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006 (helpfully broken down into separately named acts) covers a variety of material from subsidies for troops calling home to Return of the Broadcast Flag. As a consequence, I’ve broken up my analysis into a bunch of different postings.

Below, I talk about the two good things in the Stevens Bill, “The Wireless Innovation (WIN) Act of 2006,” (Title VI of the stevens Bill) and the “Sports Freedom Act of 2006” (Title IV Subtitle A).

In Part II, I will hit the really awful stuff on municipal broadband, network neutrality and broadcast flag.

This skips a bunch on local franchising, PEG, universal service, interoperability of emergency equipment, telephone rates for military personnel deployed abroad. I may come back to these if I can, but other folks, such as are doing a good job covering these issues and I also need to do my day job.

Let me make something clear at the start, I don’t support the Stevens Bill. It has a lot in it that I find just plain awful, anticompetitive, and detrimental to our freedom.

That said, I also want to recognize the good things in the Bill. In the first place, we want to preserve these and keep them from getting eliminated, even as we try to kill or amend the bill generally. Second, when someone does something right, you recognize it. Even if they do it for their own reason. Pragmatically, it encourages them. Morally, it’s the right thing to do. In Judaism, we refer to this principal as “hakarat hatov,” recognition of good. For example, we conclude our reading of the Book of Esther on the holiday of Purim by exclaiming “and also Charbonah we fondly remember.” Charbonah is a minor character who pushed the Persian King, Achashveirosh, into hanging the wicked Haman. So we recognize him despite his brief appearance.

Why do I go on about hakarat hatov at such length? Because I know a lot of folks who will not want to say anything good about the Stevens Bill or about Stevens personally. But policy rarely divides up into such comic book villains and heroes. I recognize the good provisions (over the objections of some powerful industry players), but that doesn’t blind me to the bad provisions. And the honest advocate should not hesitate to observe the good along with the bad.

Anyway, on to substance. The good parts here are the “Wireless Network Innovation Act of 2006” (the WIN Act), found at Title VI, and the “Sports Freedom Act” in Subtitle A of Title IV.

WIN requires the FCC, wthin 270 days of passage, to finish the pending “white spaces” proceeding. The statute does as reasonable a job as one can hope in pushing the FCC to make the white spaces available. The act says that within 270 days, “a certified unlicensed device may use eligible broadcast television frequencies in a manner that protects licensees from harmful interference.” The section then says “finish the pending proceeding to set appropriate rules for this.”

Stevens has already introduced The American Broadband for Communities Act , which achieves pretty much the same thing. Allan, Sunnunu, Boxer, and have also proposed a stand alone bill on this issue.

The Sports Freedom Act addresses the issues I raised in my “cable market power for policy wonks” paper back in February. Would be cable competitors need access to valuable programming to have a chance of attracting viewers and competing with cable. Cable incumbents respond by locking up the programming in exclusive deals. The FCC maintains it has no power to fix the situation.

The Sports Freedom Act fixes that. It amends the existing “program access provisions” to require the FCC to create rules that prevent these kind of exclusive deals.

Yes, this is another favor for the phone companies (and the satellite TV people). But not all things done for the phone company are evil. I am not anti-phone or anti-cable. I am anti-gate-keeper. I find a cable monopoly on video services as dangerous to democracy (because it gives control over the flow of information) as telco & cable control over broadband. So I support the Sports Freedom Act provisions. In fact, I very much want to see competitive entry by telcos into video. I just don’t think they need to screw local franchising to do it, and I think sacrificing net neutrality is too high a price.

O.K., so much for the positives. On to the problems. For convenience, I’ve set up links to the other entries, in order:
Return of the Broadcast Flag
Impact on Municipal Broadband
Impact on Network Neutrality
A Network Neutrality Primer

Stay tuned . . . .


  1. Harold,

    I’m worried about clause (b)(3), page 112, which requires the FCC to develop rules “to require manufacturers of [unlicensed devices] to include a means of disabling or modifying the device remotely if the Commission determines that certain certified unlicensed devices may cause harmful interference to licensees.” The reason I’m worried is that this will tend to add significant costs to devices, thus destroying the market for many potentially desirable unlicensed uses of this spectrum. When it comes to unlicensed broadband devices, I think the cost burden is reasonable. But what about for sensors, RFIDs, and other devices operating very short distances? The goal should be to get the cost of these devices down to pennies. That’s probably impossible with this bill’s level of interference protection for ALL devices. And don’t we want such devices to last far longer on a battery charge by using low frequency spectrum? The simplest solution would seem to be to carve out an exemption for very low power devices.

    Similarly, the limitation in clause (b)(5), p. 113–no use of unlicensed in the 13 markets where public safety uses channels 14 to 20–shouldn’t be necessary on ultra low power devices such as sensors and RFIDs.

    One clause I simply don’t understand is (b)(2)(B), page 112. I worry that it is vague enough for incumbents to use it as an excuse to litigate and create FUD.


  2. Jim:

    Good points, as usual. Since a number of engineers have said that include such a shut down command is a software issue, I don’t think it will drive up prices for consumer devices.

    I agree on public safety channels, but the FCC made that cut in the NPRM so I’m not surprised Stevens went along.

    As for the last, well — incumbents are clever. We can only do so much.

  3. Jim,

    I disagree with your first 2 points and I think your price concerns are misplaced (or else you work for a chip company). Perhaps I am missing the application you are thinking of, but, to use the TV whitespace, RFID tags would have to employ DFS and sensing. That kind of complexity would cost 20X the price of the tag.

    The parts to make an 802.11 based radio that is down converted to operate in UHF are readily available for under $50 (at hobbyist volume, probably half that for Motorola or Cisco). A narrow band uhf “cognitive radio” runs upwards of $2500.
    Re: (b)(3) – With proper engineering, and directional antennae, the shut off mechanism will allow WISPs to deploy much closer to the DTV protection contour than the “cognitive radio” stuff put forward by the IEEE and UC Berkley. How much closer? Up to 8X, which could translate to as many as 27mil homes.

    Of course, if we let humans do the work there will be human error, so the shut off mechanism is a good compromise.
    Re: (b)(5) –

    What is an acceptable amount of interference for a firefighter’s radio to have to put up with in a burning warehouse? How many dead firefighters are acceptable in the name of progress?

    In a logical world, the 13 markets that use 14-20 would have to give up their 24MHz of DTV transition spectrum to the Munies and Wisps for backhaul.

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