‘White Spaces’ Debate Shows Broadcasters At Their Worst
‘White Spaces’ Debate Shows Broadcasters At Their Worst
‘White Spaces’ Debate Shows Broadcasters At Their Worst

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    Imagine a nice little world in which book publishers don’t have to pay for paper. Paper manufacturers don’t have to pay for wood pulp. Forestry companies don’t have to pay for land or seeds.

    For most industries, that world doesn’t exist. Companies have to buy the raw materials from which their finished products are made. One industry has been continually exempt from that law of commerce – broadcasters. For almost 90 years, radio and then TV broadcasters have used the public’s airwaves (spectrum) without charge. At one point, they had some obligations to serve the public interest, but most of those were done away with in the great deregulation wave of the 1980s.

    License renewal, once subject to an administrative hearing to determine whether a station serves the public, is now done by simple notification. But at least when those obligations were around, there was the illusion that the public, and the public interest, was getting something in return for the broadcasters’ use of the spectrum.

    Over the years, the broadcasters padded their little nests, with goodies like “must-carry,” which guarantees that every broadcast channel will be carried on cable systems, “distant signal” protection from satellite broadcasters and restrictive licensing for programming. At the same time, local programming has shrunk, some stations no longer even attempt to cover news and every attempt to allow free air time for candidates (advocated by Sen. John McCain, among others), gets beaten back. A system set up with the “public interest” in mind, even if a mythical public interest, has been replaced by a private industry dedicated to repelling all perceived attacks on itself and the public’s spectrum it occupies.

    That’s the background to the current debate over how to use the vacant spectrum between channels when TV converts from its current analog setup to digital transmission in February next year. The concept of the “white spaces” between channels is simple. This line is a channel.

    This line is another channel. The space just above here is blank. It’s a “white space.” The broadcasters don’t want anyone to use it, even if they aren’t using it. Some Internet and telecom companies figured out that those white spaces would make a dandy home for an unlicensed, wireless Internet service that could help fill in the gaps between the services offered by the big wireless companies.

    The broadcasters’ answer is predictable: No. Hell, no. That’s not a surprise. In fact, broadcasters, defying the law of averages, have found that every attempt to create a new service to benefit the public will interfere with their spectrum. The FCC tried to create low-power TV (LPTV) and low-power FM (LPFM) services. Those got crushed.

    A few years back, an entrepreneur from New Hampshire, Sophia Collier, suggested using the radio frequencies on which satellite operate, which normally are transmitted vertically into the heavens, to create a new wireless cable service by using them horizontally here on earth. Guess the outcome.

    Earlier this year, the broadcast industry went to war against a couple of crippled satellite radio companies, trying to forestall the merger between XM and Sirius (now trading at 40 cents per share). It was too much competition for terrestrial broadcasters. It was a monopoly. The deal violated the restrictive license terms that benefitted broadcasters in the first place (no local content).

    Want to go back farther? Check out this cute video from 34 years ago when the concept of cable TV was first raised. Head for the hills! Broadcast TV is threatened as never before.

    That little trip into the past brings us to today, when some of our leading tech and telecom companies want to make use of the white spaces to help provide an unlicensed, wireless Internet service to help fill in the gaps and provide some competition to what the phone companies and their cellular affiliates provide. The FCC is due to vote on the issue Nov. 4, and the broadcasters are doing everything they can to derail a major step in technological progress that could bring wireless Internet to thousands of people.

    There are a couple of ways to look at the issue. One is to watch it devolve into engineering arcana, of power levels and distance between devices. That type of thing happens all too quickly. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. Regardless of power levels, regardless of how close devices are to one another to cause interference, the broadcasters would oppose anything new anyway.

    So the other way, and the much more fascinating way, is to watch the broadcasters conduct their propaganda war. They lost the scientific battle when FCC engineers determined that white spaces devices could be made so as not to interfere with TV. That was the signal for another all-out lobbying blitz, tactics at which they are very good.

    From one side, the NAB raised the specter of a spectrum grab by high-tech companies, like Google. That’s vaguely funny coming from an industry that pulled off the greatest spectrum grab in history by getting their digital spectrum for nothing and holding onto their analog spectrum for longer than they were supposed to. The whole idea of “digital TV” started when broadcasters didn’t want Motorola to have spectrum for mobile services and thought up a new use for it to compete with the Japanese, which were years ago doing analog “high definition” TV. Besides, the beauty of the white spaces devices is that they would operate in unlicensed spectrum, so no one would “own” it.

    Another line of attack is that white spaces devices would not only interfere with TV reception, but worse. Proponents of the new technology may be “motivated by the goal of destroying television,” one broadcast-industry FCC filing read, or perhaps they are just “indifferent to the consequences” of interference. In letters circulated around Capitol Hill, members of Congress were urged to “Help Protect Your Constituents” by asking the FCC to put off its Nov. 4 vote on white spaces devices.

    The letter read: “If the FCC moves this proposal forward, despite its own data to the contrary, when disruptions occur, members of Congress will hear from frustrated television viewing constituents who will not have full access to their favorite television shows, local news and emergency information and no way of solving the problem.” The broadcasters have already ginned up letters to the FCC from their friends in Congress parroting those points. One industry commentator said that allowing white spaces-enabled devices would lead to the “eventual demise” of over-the-air TV, brought to you by people who believe TV has “absolutely no value.”

    Let us take a step back. The companies involved here make some of the most sophisticated devices on the planet, and write some of the most sophisticated software ever seen. More than that, it’s likely that a great majority of the people involved also watch TV. What is the upside for anyone to make a device that would interfere with TV, or for regulators to approve a spectrum allocation that would interfere with TV, even if 20 percent of people are the only ones left watching over-the-air? None. There is no upside, so the dire warnings of disaster seem a tad foolhardy. No one involved in this debate said that TV has no value, and most discussions about taking it “off the air” are in theory, as when Nicholas Negroponte discussed it decades ago.

    Finally, if those other two tactics don’t work, there is always the diversionary tactic. In this case, the diversion is wireless microphones, like the kind used in Broadway shows or concerts, in big churches and even in the National Football League. In theory, wireless devices could interfere with those microphones. As a result, the broadcasters have been imaginative in their recruitment of people to flood the FCC with complaints. Ozzy Osbourne’s sound engineer, Dolly Parton, 100 leading musicians, churches huge and small and Broadway producers have all begged the FCC not to let unlicensed devices interfere with their ongoing operations.

    Those ongoing operations, by the way, are illegally using spectrum in the TV band, but as Harold Feld pointed out in another post, that doesn’t seem to bother the broadcasters even though the microphones use more power than would the new devices and have none of the interference protections. Go figure.

    Even the National Grange weighed in, warning against jeopardizing rural TV. Perhaps they don’t care about rural broadband.

    It’s time for a new policy for broadcasters because their world is changing, like it or not. The TV networks are starting to offer full episodes of shows online, so that viewers don’t have to watch the television set or tune in to the stations the networks or their affiliates own.

    Gigi has proposed some approaches, ranging from abandoning the spectrum scarcity argument on which broadcast regulation is based, to forcing broadcasters to choose between paying for spectrum and losing their special protections, or keeping protections like must-carry and give up spectrum. The basic question: Should an industry so dedicated to stopping progress deserve any protections without any accompanying responsibilities? The basic answer: Everything should be on the table for discussion.