Government antitrusters want to free wireless spectrum to create more competition in the broadband market. In a lengthy filing in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s call for comments on the National Broadband Plan, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney and Nancy M. Goodman, chief of the telecommunications and media enforcement section of the Federal Trade Commission, say the FCC’s “primary tool for promoting broadband competition should be freeing up spectrum. Although there may be other constraints on the ability of providers such as Clearwire, T-Mobile, Sprint, and new start-ups to develop and deploy effective wireless systems that could provide broadband services comparable to those of existing providers, the scarcity of spectrum is a fundamental obstacle that the Commission should address. Stated simply, without access to sufficient spectrum a firm cannot provide state-of-the-art wireless broadband services.”
In addressing the FCC, Justice and the FTC are preaching to the choir. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is already on record (PDF) favoring the allocation of more spectrum for wireless broadband. The real question is where the spectrum is going to come from.
There are only two likely sources. Once is from the vast amount of spectrum the government has allocated to itself. The problem is that most of it belongs to the military, and the Defense Dept. does not seem to be chiming in to support Justice and the FTC. In fact, the Pentagon is about as willing to give up spectrum as it is to kill a weapons system.
The other is prying spectrum away from television broadcasters. Considering that fewer and fewer American’s rely on over-the-air broadcasts and that the content most stations are sending out on their second and third digital channels often isn’t worth the electricity required to broadcast it, there would seem to be a lot of slack. But the TV broadcasters are tenacious and politically powerful, and freeing any of this spectrum is probably a pipe dream.
A better source is “white space,” the unused spectrum between active channels. Using the white space will require new radios that can sense and avoid interference with active channels, but the technology to do this exists. The FCC has already endorsed the use of white space in principle, but broadcasters and others, such as the makers of wireless microphones who have been making unlicensed use of white space, will put up a fierce fight. It will be tough, but this is by far the most attractive source of additional spectrum for wireless broadband.