The national broadbandwagon plan
This isn’t really news. President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum on June 8, 2010 entitled Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution. This committed the federal government to find an available 500 MHz of federal and commercial spectrum over the next 10 years for reallocation to broadband. The President said that this spectrum will foster investment, economic growth and help create hundreds of thousands of jobs by meeting the “burgeoning demand” for mobile and fixed broadband, other “high-value uses” and benefits for other industries. Currently, wireless companies have about 534 megahertz allotted to them. That number will double in the next ten years, apparently.
The FCC’s National Broadband Plan released earlier this year recommended of course the exact same thing. Of the 500 MHz to be harvested and reallocated to broadband, 300 megahertz must be between 225 MHz and 3.7 GHz for mobile use within five years. In my last column, I described this as an element of the “Perfect Storm” for the TV broadcast bands. Since then, the FCC has proposed to revise the rules for Wireless Communications Service (WCS) bands at 2305-2320 and 2345-2360 MHz so that 25 megahertz of that spectrum will be available for mobile use. The FCC has also already held their controversial “Broadcast Engineering Forum” on June 25, 2010, which explored the cellularization of broadcast architecture; the use of distributed antenna systems, methods for repacking the TV band, “improvements” in VHF reception; and advancements in compression technology. Cynics among us would suggest that this move on FCC’s part was simply to develop a record that will allow it to do what the Broadband Plan has already established as a goal: the reallocation of 120 MHz of television core channel spectrum for broadband according to the plan. So, the bandwagon is picking up speed and everyone, including President Obama, is jumping on. Having that happen is like adding a supercharger to the bandwagon. It is soon going to be going too fast to be under control.
I have always thought that spectrum planning should be a lot like land use planning. Cities and counties have a master plan, developed after hearings and a lot of public input. It is supposed to be good for a long period of time, because it represents the broad goals the residents and the local government want to achieve, and it paints a “picture” (a big one) of what collectively the people want the city or county to look like twenty years or so later. Then, after developing, refining, honing and adopting the master plan, you make individual zoning decisions about individual parcels of land that are consistent with and which further that master plan. Spectrum allocations should be like that as well, I think. Individual spectrum allocations decisions should be based on a master plan, which paints a “big picture” of spectrum use ten or twenty years hence. Internationally, that is kind of how it works. Domestically, well, not so much.
FCC doesn’t have a domestic master plan. The National Broadband Plan is not a master plan. It is surely enough a component of a master plan, but only one component. What we are left to ponder is what the rest of the spectrum landscape is going to look like when the National Broadband Plan is effectuated. What will traditional, over-the-air broadcast television look like? We don’t know, because that is not part of the plan. We thought we knew, since the DTV conversion was a partial spectrum plan as well. But that partial master plan didn’t last long. What will private land mobile radio look like? Broadcast auxiliary and microwave allocations used for video production? Amateur radio? We aren’t given that vision by the FCC, and we aren’t being asked to help shape it. We don’t know what the consequences of the reallocation of the 500 megahertz for broadband will be on the rest of the landscape, partially because we don’t know what the architects of the National Broadband Plan intended for the residual landscape to be after the reallocation, or even whether that mattered to them. All we are asked to do is to comment on what the effect will be of individual actions taken pursuant to the partial plan favored today, which has a single focus. We are asked to react, not proact. it is difficult not to become cynical in a purely reactive spectrum planning environment.
Perhaps the free market model (i.e. no master plan) for spectrum allocations is being relied on here, in which case what television broadcasting and other incumbent radio services look like post-broadband reallocation is whatever the market values most highly. That indeed seems to be the explanation. White House officials said the reallocation of spectrum would be voluntary, employing tools such as proceeds of spectrum auctions to compensate those who agree to relinquish their “unused or under-used” spectrum.
Indeed, money seems to be a large underpinning of the National Broadband Plan. According to the Fact Sheet distributed by the White House about the Memorandum: “The Administration has no official estimate of the auction revenues from this plan. The actual amount will depend on effective implementation and additional design details, but based on past auctions, many analysts believe the revenue potential could reach in the tens of billions of dollars. The proceeds would be invested in public safety, additional job-creating infrastructure investments and deficit reduction.”
But it is overly simplistic, and perhaps overly cynical to think that this is just crass commercialism at work here. The Presidential Memorandum also recommends that “[t]he FCC, within the next 10 years, should free up a new, contiguous nationwide band for unlicensed use.” This would provide “new opportunities for innovation through free, unlicensed use of spectrum by technology startups, individual users, and others.” Furthermore, auction revenues will allow additional investment in public safety and infrastructure that “a critical part of this spectrum initiative” will be to provide funding to help build a nationwide interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety, which would include ‘next generation’ technologies.
The White House praised FCC Chairman Genachowski and his team, who put together the National Broadband Plan. But that is the problem. The plan was put together behind closed doors and it is not a comprehensive master plan that addresses the effect of its success on incumbents: the workhorse services that are potentially profoundly affected by the success of the Plan. Now, according to the Memorandum, the government is “pursuing a separate fast-track process to identify a down payment of specific bands of spectrum that could be freed up.”
Whatever the model, the National Broadband Plan looks a lot like a bandwagon that is being jumped on by everyone in Washington, regardless of political party, and regardless of the effect of the reallocation of spectrum (the volume of which has already been decided as a matter of policy), on incumbent services. The bandwagon has no brakes, folks, and it is picking up speed. The sad part is that we can’t really get out of the way.
by Cris Imlay
SBE General Counsel