Unlicensed Spectrum in TV

The FCC has released its eagerly anticipated (or dreaded) Notice of Proposed Rule Making which would authorize the use of unlicensed spectrum access in the television bands. (Word, PDF, and Text). This is one of the real important proceedings before the FCC on unlicensed. You can be sure that major companies on both the pro-unlicensed and the anti-unlicensed side will file? But will you? Are you content to let Microsoft or Intel cut a deal with Viacom, News Corp and the rest of the media conglomerates for you? Or would you rather participate yourself and help define your own rights?

I’ve talked a lot about unlicensed spectrum access and why I think its important before, so I won’t rehash that here.

This proceeding is particularly important for two reasons. First, as a technical matter, the propogation characteristics of spectrum in the TV bands make it the absolutely choice location. Information propogates relatively easily through solid objects at very low power. For those trying to bring broadband to inner city neighborhoods or rural areas, this stuff is gold because it will go through thick building walls or through wet leaves. For those wanting to develop new consumer devices, this stuff is gold because it takes much less battery power to accomplish the same thing than it would in 2.4 GHz.

Politically, for those of us who care about getting direct access for citizens, this stuff is gold for another reason. It is the chance to take public spectrum given for free to broadcasters on a promise of public service, and give it into the hands of the public. And if you can beat the broadcasters, you have a real movement that decision makers will respect. The NAB is often cited as one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington because its members collectively control the thing politicians most desperately need, public exposure. Individual broadcasters and broadcasting groups may compete and lobby against each other, but when they lobby together as one industry on a matter that equally impacts them all, politicans get very afraid and very cooperative.

In 1996 broadcasters wanted $70 Billion in free spectrum for DTV. The cellular telephone industry, no slouches, wanted the same spectrum and were willing to pay for it at auction? How did broadcasters win? By shamelessly exploiting their FCC broadcast licenses. TV stations ran free “public service announcements” that if citizens didn’t call up their Congresscritters and tell them to support the NAB version of the bill, free over the air TV would cease to exist. The broadcast networks also ran nasty stories about the cellular industry on their news shows. Finally, when Senator Bob Dole continued to hold up the NAB because of the public giveaway, the major Iowa group owner threatened to endorse Dole’s rivals in the 1996 Republican Primary. (All of this is documented in some studies done by Jim Snider which you can find on the New America Foundation website here. Guess what? Dole caved.

So the broadcasters are big, bad and fight dirty. How do you win? Well, for one thing, several tech companies have lobbied like mad for this. Intel in particular has pushed very, very hard to get this NPRM. They expect to sell a lot of consumer equipment with chips designed to use these bands. Same with Microsoft, Dell, and a bunch of very large non-broadcast players.

Plus the engineering really is solid. The FCC employs engineers, including some very very smart ones, who understand about engineering and why allowing unlicensed really is valuable. And a number of the policy folks at the FCC understand as well. Being right is very important. It’s just not usually enough.

So, industry players, policy makers, what role does the public have? If you are content to let other people define your rights for you, then fine. The history of unlicensed to date has been that the tech companies that favor it sit down with the licensees (either private licensees or federal operators like the military) and cut a deal. Corporations, after all, are in this to make money and sell products (and more power to ’em). It is not the job of industry lobbyists to get the best technical results or protect the public interest. It is the job of industry lobbyists to negotiate a deal under which their companies can make a profit.

But if, like me, you have a hankering to see the public represented in these discussions and at least get us seat at the table, there is a great deal to do.

First, the FCC needs to hear from people who are likely to use this stuff. Since the NAB’s argument is based on protecting people from interference to their TV, a record showing significant public support for the idea is a good start.

Feel like doing more? Write your Senatoirs and Representatives. No, there is no legislation pending. But you can bet the industry lobbyists are already campaigning on the Hill to get Congress to short circuit the FCC. Let your elected official know you support unlicensed and, specifically, unlicensed in the broadcast bands. Take the opportunity to explain in your own words why you, a constituent, think this issue is important. If you are using unlicensed technologies, tell your stories. Educate your representatives. They may never have heard anything about this issue until their local tv broadcast station called and said “you gotta stop this thing at the FCC or your constituents will lose their television recption and hate you.”

Still want to do more? Educate your friends. The more voices involved, the more voice the public has.

Want to help even more? Join some of the organizations that are working on these issues. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Prometheus Radio Project are the most active grassroots organizations I work with (and if there are other grassroots orgs working on this I _should_ know about, tell me). If you join or volunteer, tell them its to support their work on unlicensed and ask how you can help.

Stay tuned . . .


  1. Harold,

    Our problem, as I see it, is that we’re using pea-shooters against tanks. (By “we” I mean private citizens arguing in our capacity as citizens, not as employees of this or that corporation). The corporations have virutally unlimited budgets for using the airwaves to make their case, and literally thousands of person-years of experience in using those budgets and airwaves to make their points. And we’re responding with weblogs, which, though informative, are dry as the sahara.

    We need to lively up our message. I don’t have money or very much time, but I’m willing to work on this. With a few writers and graphic designers and gamers and so forth we might be able to come up with a more sexy way to motivate people to act.

    I’m going to check-out prometheus and EFF. But I’m also putting on my thinking cap about what wetmachine can add to the mix. After all, every bit helps.

    I’m thinking, if I wanted to motivate my 23 year old daughter to get involved (and I do) how would I do it? If I wanted my 16 year old daughter to get involved (and I do) how would I do it?

    The issues are simple, kinda, but they are also complex and easy to tune out. We need to explain them better than we’re doing. We need to get the message out with comix, games, video, whatever.

    I dunno. But I’m thinkin. . .

  2. Politicians consistently say that a very few grassroots letters are enough to make up their mind. Because they know how hard it is to get the word out and how few people bother to write compared to how many care.

    Email doesn’t work, ’cause anyone can hit “copy, send.” But letters still do, AFAIK.

  3. Manny is correct from what I’ve heard.

    Also keep in mind that even if a Senator or Rep. is a wholly owned subsidiary of a particular interest, they are potentially up for grabs on the rest. And even the most wholly owned have to yield to political realities. Sarbanes-Oxley passed because enough people were pissed.

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