Thomas Friedman writes in his column yesterday that none of the Republican candidates has focused much on technological innovation, then proceeds to focus on the matter of “smart cities.” Friedman’s thesis is fairly straightforward: to maintain our competitive edge, we will need to keep pumping up our bandwidth, particularly in cities and towns which historically act as the incubators for The Next Big Thing and all its associated, Highly Useful Little Things. Blair Levin’s Gig U gets favorable mention, and Blair gets quoted a lot on why we want huge bandwidth in urban areas as well as making sure everyone gets access to functional broadband.
Let me give the Republican candidates that care (and I just know y’all hang on my every word) some advice. When you want to know where to stand on spectrum, follow the lead of Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Most importantly, do NOT follow the lead of House Republicans.
Republicans looking for vision on wireless cannot do better than Senator Olympia Snowe. Snowe has consistently supported a sophisticated approach to spectrum that recognizes the problem of balancing the need of more exclusive licensed spectrum for existing (and growing) smart phone demand, shared unlicensed spectrum (particularly the TV white space/”SuperWiFi”) to provide low-cost wireless for innovation and rural broadband, and smarter management of federal spectrum to meet growing defense and other national needs. It’s a vision that simultaneously creates needed infrastructure and brings capital to the market without adding a penny to the National Debt. In fact, it pays down the debt with spectrum auctions, while simultaneously avoiding new expenses by protecting needed federal spectrum for federal use.
By contrast, House Republicans look at spectrum first and foremost as a revenue raiser, with the added bonus of feeding their current anti-net neutrality obsession. But the penny-wise-pound-foolishness of the House Republicans does not stop with treating the lifeblood of our digital future as a one-time cash cow. The current House spectrum bill so micromanages the auction process that it guarantees failure. Every spectrum economist that has testified before Congress or otherwise opined on the subject has repeated one mantra over and over: Congress needs to give the FCC flexibility to structure spectrum auctions to adjust for the ever-changing mix of technological innovation, market structure and wireless demand. In the time between when Congress passes a spectrum bill and the time an auction will actually happen, circumstances will change dramatically. What looks like a smart idea now may prove disastrous by the time we hold the auction. As a result, an impressive array of businesses and trade associations – including cable (NCTA), wireless carriers (Sprint, Cricket), and rural telcos (RTG, RCA) in addition to WISPs and tech companies – joined with a similarly impressive list of public interest organizations on a letter to Congress around a single message: please do not try to micromanage spectrum auctions; preserve the FCC’s traditional flexibility to run auctions and to balance between exclusive licensed spectrum and shared unlicensed spectrum based on the record developed and the advice of engineers and economists.
As Senator Snowe has eloquently and repeatedly pointed out, spectrum auctions are only part of the overall solution to the problem of making enough wireless capacity available for everything from iPads streaming video to the “Internet of things” raised by Friedman. TV white spaces in particular address many of the issues raised by Friedman on how to create the “abundant bandwidth” critical to our future economic growth. Existing shared spectrum technologies such as WiFi already create $50 billion a year in value to our economy. It’s not that shared unlicensed spectrum is necessarily “better” than licensed spectrum in some abstract sense. It’s just a matter of matching the right data with the right network. When it comes to the nonstop but robust chatter of the “internet of things” that Friedman talks about, you want TV white spaces. It’s cheap, and because of its penetration characteristics, TV white spaces can cover buildings and defined geographic areas (like campuses and neighborhoods) far more easily than existing wifi.
This allows you to do all kinds of neat things, like extend that Gigabit U fiber to the entire campus, just as Cablevision has used its wifi footprint to make its high speed cable network available to its customers while they wander around outside. More generally, this allows you to take all that noisy traffic that doesn’t *need* a dedicated, interference-protected cellular network so that you can move the less robust and/or more critical things to exclusive licensed networks (this is why “offload” by licensed networks via wifi has become one of the fastest growing uses of shared unlicensed spectrum). Meanwhile, just like the original “best efforts” Internet of the 1990s, the availability of a cheap, open wireless data network encourages a very different sort of experimentation and innovation than the more reliable (but more expensive) cell phone network.
In 2011, Obama showed off his tech chops by promoting wireless in his State of the Union address. But, as Senator Snowe has repeatedly shown, smart spectrum policy doesn’t need to belong to one party. For Republican Presidential candidates, sporting some sophistication on spectrum that goes beyond “how-much-can-we-get-for-this” (and embracing targeted fiber projects such as Gig U) provides an easy way to look good on infrastructure without spending a dime of federal money. The fact that TV white spaces/Superwifi comes with impeccable Republican credentials (the brainchild of Republican Chairman Michael Powell, delivered over incumbent resistance by Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, and promoted by Republican Commissioners as the deregulatory, pro-competitive alternative to regulating the wireless industry) should make it an even more compelling package. Finally on how many other issues can any of the Republican candidates claim they stand 100% with the Microsoft, The cable industry, and Consumer Federation of America?
As the final kicker, the FCC just approved for manufacture and use the first, ever TV white space device in the world. For a Presidential candidate, is there a better photo op on how America continues to lead the world when it comes to innovation?
When Congress returns in late January, the Senate and the House will resume negotiation on the payroll tax holiday extension bill. Everyone wants to see a spectrum provision that includes incentive auctions. Will any of the Republican Presidential candidates take the opportunity to answer Friedman’s challenge and put forward a compelling vision of the wireless infrastructure along the lines of Senator Snowe? Or, like the House Republicans, will they miss a golden opportunity by combining myopic focus on the bottom line with the worst sort of command-and-control micromanagement.