Potential harm to broadcasting is just one of the reasons Congress should rethink permitting non-broadcast use of TV spectrum.
For some years now, computer companies have been arguing that the FCC needs to allow “ancillary,” “non-interfering” use of the radio frequency spectrum set aside for over-the-air broadcasting. Proposals vary. Some want to use the TV channels that are unassigned in particular markets. For instance, if there’s no one using channel 2 in Washington, D.C., because WMAR’s using it in Baltimore, Intel thinks channel 2 should be made available.
Others want to use all the TV channels—at very low wattage, they promise. It would be sort of like letting the garage door openers, microwave ovens and “Mister Radio” all broadcast on TV channels. Who cares, the argument goes, now that everyone has satellite or cable hookups anyway? Thus, there’s even so-called white space language in S. 2686, the communications regulatory reform bill the Senate Commerce Committee is currently considering.
Now, if any companies interested in using the broadcast spectrum promised to do all research, development, and manufacturing in the United States—including all components—I’d probably be more open to the proposition. I’m big on domestic activity, particularly manufacturing.
But all we expect Intel, Microsoft, Sun and others would do is expand their factories in Shanghai or Vietnam or Thailand. That might be great for America’s trade rivals. But the United States already has a large and growing advanced technology trade deficit. Disloyal companies like Microsoft contribute to that. Why in the world is it necessary to make the Xbox 360 in Shanghai? Why can’t these companies even hire U.S. call centers to handle customer matters, right?
Remember, mutuality’s a core governance principle. In other words, companies have to make a deposit, usually, before they can just write checks. And, companies have to do something for the country, don’t they, before government needs to do something for them, right? So, ask yourself: What exactly are Intel, Microsoft, Sun and others planning to do for the United States and American workers, assuming they’re ever allowed to make use of the TV white space? Enhance the Grove Foundation’s holdings or boost the Gates family’s dividend income while creating an even bigger advanced technology trade deficit for this country? What sort of a social bargain is that?
A good reason for not allowing massive, unlicensed use of all TV channels, moreover, is that a lot of this resource is supposed to be auctioned off in a couple of years, isn’t it? Why in the world would Congress in 2006 want to impair the potential value of these channels? And, by giving away the use of them, to boot.
Look at it this way: What if you were trying to sell your house, and someone came by and asked if an “out-of-status” family could move into the garage for a while? Think that would influence the willingness of buyers to buy, or how much they’d pay?
Well, under just-passed reconciliation legislation, the national transition to digital broadcasting is set to be completed in February 2009. Analog television channels are scheduled to be auctioned in 2008. Yet here’s Intel and Microsoft arguing that millions of unlicensed transceivers need to be allowed in exactly those bands. At a minimum, wouldn’t you think the Budget Committee needs to get involved, so that its calculations aren’t fouled up?
Another reason why rapid proliferation of unlicensed wireless systems is troubling is the fact that these systems have been proven magnets for identity theft and other consumer problems. Both Reader’s Digest and Consumers Reports, for instance, have recommended that computer users avoid logging onto no-charge WiFi Internet access systems because of the risk their machine will be compromised.
Evidently there are evil doers exploiting this wireless technology to steal customer information or insert spyware and other malicious software into computers. The industry’s endeavoring to develop safeguards. But until that’s done, why in the world would we want to cause these crime magnets to proliferate?
Radio frequency management is complicated, and the task of making multiple use of television channels is very complicated, indeed. The FCC has examined these issues and, before legislation is passed, wouldn’t you think a field trial would make sense? The computer industry’s Beta-testing approach—just toss it out there and see if it causes problems—might work in software. But it isn’t a very sound approach in the frequency management field.
Exacerbating our advanced technology trade deficit, creating more magnets for illegal activity and potentially compromising the TV channel auctions seem like good reasons to be against any white areas legislative initiative. So the answer? Be reasonable, Senator Stevens, and defer action on white space legislation for the time being.
Kenneth Robinson writes the Telecommunications Policy Review, a weekly newsletter about communications policy and all else that interests him. His long career in government included a stint as senior adviser to FCC Chairman Alfred Sikes during the first Bush Administration. He can be reached at [email protected] or JAckson 8-0960 in the area code 703.