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Is "white space" spectrum really free?

January 2, 2009

Google and Microsoft clearly won a political and PR victory in getting the FCC to open up the white space spectrum previously being used by TV broadcasters for “free”. The larger question to ask is whether it really is free. There is still a long journey before a vibrant ecosystem emerges around this. It will take sustained cooperation between equipment manufacturers, content owners and systems providers. More importantly, it will take continued lobbying efforts of the big boys to keep the momentum. Elliott Drucker has done a good thought provoking write-up in Wireless Week.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Sparqi permalink
    January 4, 2009 8:16 am

    Hi Ramneek. Sorry to hear that Mobio is idled but I know good things are in store for you going forward.

    Given that the incoming Obama FCC will likely take a populist stance on spectrum I think it’s likely that we’ll see more slaughtering of sacred cows in telecomm. I’ve always felt that the NAB should have been forced to either use or give up their idle TV spectrum. The FCC requires this of every spectrum licensee; even the ones like cellular/PCS auction winners who’ve *paid* for their spectrum. So White Space Spectrum (WSS) is a good start towards setting precedent that “use it or lose it” is applicable to *all* licensees. (Of course, the exception will likely always be the government itself which holds huge swaths of spectrum which have laid fallow for years and likely will for years to come.)

    While I think forced spectral re-farming is a good idea, I don’t buy for a second the arguments that WSS will create a nationwide free wireless network. The WCA’s Metro Wireless SIG ( hosted numerous events on the subject of “Muni-Fi” and in the end the only sustainable business model for Wireless ISPs (WISPs) was shown to be the case wherein the municipality itself is the primary tenant; which means that local taxpayers fund the network. So when the FCC offers WSS for build-out; who will pay for the tower siting, EIR reports, site equipment, coverage surveys, etc blah foo? Ad revenue? Not likely. Cities themselves? Not in the current economic climate and commensurate tax-base erosion.

    History lesson: Anyone remember Metricom and the Ricochet network? Popular and profitable at the local level, but when Vulcan tried to take it nationwide it died quickly, and this was during the “Nutty 90’s” when capital was being handed out like Halloween candy from every door along Sand Hill Road.

    I believe the likely outcome is… WSS will ultimately be assigned to spectral ownership by muni/regional governments but (key point) *without* a requirement to do anything with it. Local and regional wireless ISPs will be allowed and encouraged to build-out systems in WSS; perhaps with tax incentives offered to help the WISPs. As has been proven empirically by the “Muni-Fi” model; the muni/regional governments will have to be anchor tenants for the business model to work, and therefore WSS build-out will only happen in areas where the local tax-base can absorb the costs. Initially this market is small, and the equipment vendors will have a hard time amortizing NRE over quantity or absorbing loses; again tax incentives may need to be offered.

    So in the end it might work, but there’s a huge amount of populist idealism behind the concept and the taxpayers will have to absorb the costs. My cynical side says that the end result will be that the FCC will end up effectively warehousing the White Space spectrum by holding it in reserve for muni/regional governments and it will go unused. Ultimately it will revert to “open spectrum” such as we have in the ISM bands.

    Sorry I don’t have a more cheery prognostication; but I honestly don’t see WSS being anything more than a dream.



    David T. Witkowski
    Vice President, Wireless Communications Alliance

    ** The views expressed here are my own, and don’t reflect any official policy or position of the WCA. **

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