As football season kicks off, broadcasters look forward to a bump in ratings. But as the sports season brings touchdowns and good tidings, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is assuming a curiously desperate posture on television white spaces (TVWS). Accustomed to a winning record at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the NAB is backed up in the red zone trying to maintain its spurious claim to unused spectrum. But NAB’s defensive field position doesn’t match reality, chiefly because the reservation of a TVWS channel would be a win for NAB’s members and Americans at large.
The latest criticism from NAB is a Hail Mary of an argument. NAB suggests TVWS won’t work because there aren’t enough registered devices equipped with TVWS capabilities to make the initiative worthwhile. While this play may be designed to move the ball down the field, it is effectively eating up the clock and causing a ripple of eye rolling among officials.
Here are three reasons why NAB’s claim is a red herring:
First, the basis for the argument is irrelevant. The number of devices in use before a spectrum band is set aside for a particular purpose does not matter. When broadcast television first hit the airwaves in the late 1940s, there were only a few televisions in the United States. Why? Because a company that manufactured and sold TVs at scale without access to, or confirmation of, broadcast channels would not last long.
TVWS is undergoing the same experimentation that broadcast television did more than 70 years ago, and in both cases, the experimentation size wasn’t enough to justify large-scale production. To be financially responsible, manufacturing products at scale requires an expectation that investments will support it – in this sense, TVWS devices are no different from TVs. In fact, when the FCC set aside spectrum for broadcast television in 1948, the number of TVs grew exponentially from a handful to roughly 102,000 TV sets by the end of the year, two-thirds of which were in New York City. However, without investment in broadcast channels, which would make television accessible to a broader part of the population, TVs were prohibitively expensive, and only a few could benefit from their ingenuity. Thankfully, the conditions can be different for TVWS.
Second, the basis for the argument is inaccurate. NAB’s implication that all TVWS users must have a registered TVWS device does not reflect the efficiencies of modern technology. Consider this example: internet subscribers in an apartment building have a box on the side of their building to receive internet signals, which then distributes the signal through a cable to a wireless router. This enables many users to wirelessly connect their smartphones and other devices to the internet. In this example, the registered TVWS device is not your smartphone, as NAB implies, but is represented by the box attached to your home. Not everyone requires their own registered TVWS device to receive internet connectivity, but the TVWS box would allow all kinds of devices—televisions, smartphones, wearable devices, connected machinery — to receive the signal. These devices, and their various uses, are all supported by internet connectivity, while broadcast signals only support broadcast channels. In the end, the picture NAB paints – that we have 34 million devices to register before TVWS can be viable – is misleading and out of tune with reality.
Third, NAB’s argument supports our push to reserve a channel in the UHF band for TVWS devices. If roughly one thousand TVWS devices have been registered, then that signals that companies haven’t been manufacturing them at scale. Like all business endeavors, investors will not push capital into major manufacturing operations until they know the items can be utilized. You don’t begin producing your star quarterback’s jersey until you confirm he’ll play for your team. The first step is reserving the necessary spectrum channels for TVWS to work at scale, which will later incent the production of TVWS devices.
We know that reserving a UHF channel for TVWS deployment will benefit the millions of Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide. It will NOT harm low-power TV services, nor will it impact licensed broadcast channels, but it will spark the large-scale manufacturing of TVWS devices to make this connectivity a reality. It’s time to stop the trash talk and kick off an initiative that will help unconnected Americans in need.