Blog Post

How Congress’ spectrum bills hurt the tech community

Stay on Top of Emerging Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

This week both Republicans and Democrats proposed drafts of mobile spectrum bills that would incent television broadcasters to give up some of their spectrum to be used for mobile broadband. Essentially, Congress wants to replace PBS or local broadcast affiliates with downloading Facebook on iPhones.

But things aren’t so simple when it comes to spectrum or Washington politics. The Republican version of the spectrum bill poses a threat to unlicensed wireless, which is where technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth operate. Your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies are safe, but the future of the proposed White Spaces broadband also known as Super Wi-Fi, and new unlicensed spectrum is in doubt under the draft bill. And hiding in those unlicensed airwaves could be the next Wi-Fi.

Such spectrum is free for anyone to use as long as devices operate under interference rules set by the FCC. These bands are where baby monitors, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, walkie-talkies and other radios work — even toys. But in the Republican draft bill, getting ahold of more unlicensed spectrum looks about as easy as getting Om to cheer for the Red Sox.

The draft bill says that in order for unlicensed spectrum to win out over a licensed bidder, an entity or a group of people would have to collectively bid more than a licensed bidder would. This would be akin to having a group of people who want more unlicensed airwaves going up against Verizon or AT&T. As a reminder Verizon (s vz) spent $9.63 billion on spectrum licenses in the last auction while AT&T (s t) spent $6.64 billion. The legislators may have envisioned Google (s goog) playing a heroic role here and thus enabling the government to make some extra money in a spectrum auction as opposed to just letting such potentially lucrative spectrum become a public radio panacea regulated by the FCC.

There’s another wacky issue with unlicensed spectrum — all of the airwaves would be auctioned off in geographic blocks which means that there would be no nationwide unlicensed spectrum block created. So even if local communities or corporate entities interested in promoting unlicensed spectrum bought out the airwaves, they’d only have access to the ones in their local areas. This is how wireless providers buy their spectrum, and it can lead to some operators having a hard time covering certain markets. And while a local municipality might want to buy unlicensed spectrum to offer its citizens Super Wi-Fi or another service over those airwaves, getting low-cost devices for only one area would be a challenge. Device makers can’t provide cheap electronics for smaller markets.

If the Republicans who control the House manage to get their bill through with those unlicensed provisions, it creates challenges for white spaces broadband, which was originally supposed to operated in the bands between the digital TV spectrum the FCC is trying to convince broadcasters to give up. It also creates challenges for anyone hoping for more airwaves where tech firms and entrepreneurs could create the next generation of Wi-Fi or other wireless data transfer protocol.

With the debate over the debt ceiling, the fate of the spectrum legislation is in flux, but tech firms should keep an eye on this proposal if it moves through the House. I’m willing to sacrifice my TV for more spectrum, but only it’s put to efficient and effective use. As it’s written, the rules don’t favor that for any unlicensed bands.

10 Responses to “How Congress’ spectrum bills hurt the tech community”

  1. Midimagic

    We do not need more wireless. We need to eliminate most of the auto-accident-causing cell phones, and make most people plug their computers into their networks with wires. What a waste of radio spectrum!

  2. The Harv

    I don’t know what’s worse, this bill’s powergrab from citizens or the hypocritical lets-do-this-for-9/11 stuff coming out of Congress. It is legally impossible to auction unlicensed spectrum, because the FCC has never auctioned and cannot auction “spectrum”. The FCC auctions licenses only, and not even ownership of licenses (check the Communications Act).

    Auctions are a method to select among competing license applicants only. They replaced comparative hearings and whirling ping pong balls (lotteries) and that’s all they did.

    There are no competing applicants for “unlicenses”. By definition non-licenses cannot exist. Even a licensee can’t choose to permit unlicensed devices to share its allocated spectrum; only the government can do that — and in fact has done that in far more bands than most people realize. It is why we were able to have Wi-Fi, which has no spectrum allocations because it is a device and not a service. But let’s run lawnmowers over these wonk nuances!

    This legislation would conflate devices and services, capture more of the spectrum away from direct citizen use and expand the estates of auction winners.

    The bill applies to all unlicensed uses of the radio spectrum, including the millimeter wave bands, with no explanation provided. Crazy, just crazy!

  3. wee need more spectrum for mobile broadband? here’s a first step – understand your 10 year old doesn’t need an f’ing smartphone. what the hell is wrong with you?

    so who wants to start rallying the millions of people it would take to donate cash to raise enough money to outbid licensed bidders to for new unlicensed spectrum?

  4. Jacomo

    Does the Government really believe private carriers will bid for what we call the White Space spectrum, or in short the spectrum designed to maintain separation between primary (channels) spectrums. This stuff is of very little value and needs to be Unlicensed and open to the public.

  5. radioguy

    I agree, let Google and MS pay for unlicensed spectrum for their hordes of cash – perhaps it would be like buying a central park for the entire U.S.

    • mossholderm

      By passing this legislation, you would be asking Google and MS to pay, not just for traffic going to their sites, but any traffic, even non-internet traffic. What incentive would these companies have to pay for spectrum blocks?

      Remember, the airwaves belong to we the people. Unlicensed spectrum is just we the people getting to use some of it. When VZW or AT&T buy a block of spectrum, they are effectively saying “We are paying the government to lease this spectrum”. When you looks at it for what it is, asking companies to pay, on our behalf, for something that we already own doesn’t make any sense.

  6. You wrote “first responders won’t get the economies of scale associated with buying handsets that could also be sold to consumers. But those firemen and police will get their own block of pristine spectrum that no one else will play in.” on the first linked article. This would be an excellent reason for what is being done. John Doe does NOT need to listen in on what police, fire departments, FBI, et cetera are doing / saying.

  7. Dave Roberts

    Here’s a radical though… Let’s push for all future spectrum allocations to be done as unlicensed spectrum. WiFi has shown the way for this. Rather than saying that somebody owns the right to transmit using any protocol in a given frequency, let’s instead create protocols that make it possible for anybody to transmit in all frequencies, as long as they follow the protocol rules and don’t trample others. At the end of the day, we’re heading toward a world where *all* media is delivered over the Internet and all devices are Internet receivers. The idea of “what show is on what channel at what time” is outdated in every sense. The idea of “channel” is obsolete. The idea of a show having to air at a given time is obsolete. Heck, when my family stays in a hotel, my 3-year-old daughter, who has grown up with Tivo all her life, can’t understand why Olivia isn’t available on-demand. Why are we still trafficking in outdated concepts. The spectrum usage rules should be biased toward open access for everybody. BlogTV, available on every device, including your living-room bigscreen, produced by folks like GigaOm and the 12-year-old down the street, is the future.