How Congress’ spectrum bills hurt the tech 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 spent $9.63 billion on spectrum licenses in the last auction while AT&T spent $6.64 billion. The legislators may have envisioned Google 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.

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