What is good governing? We believe good governing involves, in part, a regulatory framework that fosters innovation. It involves encouraging and allowing the private sector to re-purpose resources, especially those that are unused, for a greater public good. Television airwaves are such a resource, and allowing stakeholders to use them to their highest potential would be good government. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a unique opportunity to set the bar for good governance, and open unused television white spaces (TVWS) spectrum bands to help close our country’s digital divide.
The availability is great, and the opportunities are greater, sparking an intense debate across the telecommunications industry. Unfortunately, many arguments are providing a skewed perspective of why this incredible resource is laying dormant. For example, a recent blog post by National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) uses the metaphor of a failed movie sequel to advance an argument against Microsoft’s plans to re-purpose TVWS spectrum to bridge the digital divide in rural areas. Sadly, many of these arguments have more holes than the plots of the sequels NAB’s blog invokes, so we’re here to set the record straight.
Those debating the use of unused spectrum often confuse the issue with a false choice. Many broadcasters argue the unproven harms of TVWS deployment, or accuse Microsoft’s plan of being inconsequential and even harmful to low-power TV (LPTV) providers. In other words, why would you need to reserve a small space for broadband if you already have enough? And if you don’t have enough, then you’re harming LPTV by pushing them out, right? Not really. In rural areas especially, there is plenty of room on the dial. Reserving space for broadband helps address the fact that the demand for broadband outstrips its supply in rural areas—and that its supply needs room to grow. Microsoft’s proposed plan leaves LPTV with several channels to grow into and broadband with at least one. This is not a zero-sum game – the growth of broadband supply CAN occur alongside the growth of LPTV. It seems hardly disputable that the growth of broadband supply is at least as important as the need for additional LPTV stations in rural areas. Just ask people who live in rural America.
That broadband and LPTV can coexist is a matter of engineering, and on that point, the record is clear. The FCC conducted extensive trials on this issue—trials in which the FCC’s own Office of Technology and Engineering found that TVWS had negligible effects on LPTV services, and no impact when the devices, like Microsoft’s, incorporated protections against TV interference. To make such damaging claims about the negative impacts of TVWS on LPTV, critics need proof to support their assumption. Instead, their arguments leave a gaping plot hole.
Some critics suggest that companies like Microsoft gain an upper hand by reserving a TVWS channel for itself. Unless they’re watching a different movie, that is the exact opposite of what Microsoft is requesting from the FCC. With TVWS, Microsoft is asking the FCC to reserve a channel for public use. What’s more, not only are broadcasters sitting idly on a valuable resource with widespread benefits, they are requesting roughly $350 million over the $1.75 billion already coming their way.
Lastly, critics argue that Microsoft has had at least a decade to provide internet services using TVWS, and has not done so. Spoiler alert: this assertion is inaccurate. For example, in Southern Virginia, Microsoft partnered with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities, B2X, and the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to provide a Homework Network for school children in rural and under-served Charlotte and Halifax Counties. The largest of its kind in North America, this project uses TVWS equipment to extend wireless broadband from local schools to students’ homes. It is unfair to assume that TVWS are better served by LPTV stations. LPTV operators have used these available bands for nearly half a century, and have failed to demonstrate a more valuable use for TVWS not used for broadband.
The heart of this voracious opposition is an underlying assumption. That assumption is that LPTV stations somehow obtained an entitlement to this unlicensed spectrum. This is pure fiction, and divorced from the law, because the FCC designated this spectrum as unlicensed. This means that no one person or entity owns this spectrum. Rather, the FCC made this resource available for the good of society, yet certain broadcasters and LPTV stations are treating it as if they have a vested property right in all of it. To be clear, they have none, and they are pushing to kick innovators off a property they do not own.
If we are to use movie industry metaphors, then LPTV stations have optioned and shelved the rights to an award-winning script, instead of allowing another studio to make the film of a lifetime. All the while, this incredible potential is wasted, sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Let us hope TVWS bands do not suffer the same fate.