“The Great White Space Debate” may be unfamiliar to most small business owners, and to most people for that matter. But its outcome could have a profound impact on e-commerce and the future of telecommunications and the Internet.
Although it’s been going on for at least four years, the debate, for the most part, has been confined to the corridors of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While the technology trade media have doggedly pursued the story, the stakes are too high to continue relegating this issue to lobbyists and industry insiders. It’s time for a truly national public debate, and small businesses, without question, need a seat at the table.
The issue is important because it involves the next generation of Internet broadband service, the so-called (and some say mythical) “third pipe” of connectivity. Right now, Cable TV and DSL phone connections provide 96 percent of the nation’s broadband service. The third pipe is based on the wireless transmission of data.
Small businesses are considered an under-served market segment, especially in rural areas, because of the high cost and limited availability of current broadband service. They also lag general businesses in e-commerce. But wireless broadband service could reach rural areas at lower cost and open the Internet to a broader range of small companies.
At the moment, Wi-Fi is probably the best known application of wireless technology. But it uses a very high radio frequency (2.4GHz and 5.0GHz), which limits it to confined areas known as “hot spots.” The higher the frequency the less ability a signal has to travel distances or penetrate walls and other solid objects. Even a tree can block a Wi-Fi signal.
The most versatile and most powerful part of the radio spectrum (54MHz to 698MHz) has long been reserved for television broadcasts. But television stations (channels 2 to 51) only use part of the spectrum. The unused parts are known as “white space.” In the past, white space served as a buffer to prevent television signals from interfering with each other. But proponents say that, thanks to advances in technology, white space can be used without interference to create a truly national wireless broadband system.
Four years ago, the FCC opened a proceeding to explore using the spectrum for broadband, and powerful industry trade groups have formed to do battle. Today, the “White Spaces Coalition” (WSC) includes such industry heavyweights as Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Philips, Earthlink, and Samsung. The equally powerful National Association of Broadcasters and a group called the Association for Maximum Service Television are leading the opposition.
Under its original plan, the FCC was supposed to issue final rules governing white space usage next month. It now appears unlikely to hit its self-imposed deadline, but a couple of recent developments and some other factors could break the logjam.
For one, Capitol Hill lawmakers are growing impatient. Several, led by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., have reintroduced a bill to force the agency to issue rules and permit broadband service by no later than 2009. That’s when television stations are supposed to complete the switch to digital-only broadcasts.
Technology has been another big stumbling block. Because the number of television stations varies from city to city, available white space also varies. As such, portable devices like laptop computers need to be able to search out and switch to white space frequencies to avoid interfering with local television stations.
Both Microsoft and Philips Electronics say they have perfected devices that can detect television and wireless microphone signals. Although the FCC says the devices failed to perform up to expectations in recent tests, it’s likely only a matter of time before they work as intended. (For its part, Microsoft says its device had a defective part.)
Meanwhile, the FCC is moving ahead with plans to auction radio spectrum above 700MHz (Channels 52 to 69), a portion of which (62MHz) will be dedicated for broadband uses. That alone, however, won’t be enough to compete with companies like Verizon, which is rolling out a fiber-optic network. “You’re going to need a lot more. That’s why it’s important to provide access to licensed as well as unlicensed spectrum,” Harold Feld, a spokesman for the nonprofit Media Access Project (MAP), told reporters recently. MAP is a Washington-based organization that represents the public’s interests in electronic media before the FCC, other policy-making bodies, and the courts.
Technology issues notwithstanding, however, there is another reason why more public scrutiny is needed: The FCC has made a mess of telecommunications policy. As FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps noted recently, the nation is getting “too little broadband at too high a price.”
Thanks to the FCC, Cable TV and telephone companies dominate the broadband market. They’ve basically skimmed the cream off the top by focusing on densely populated, easy-to-service areas. As a result, large parts of the country are underserviced. Only 31 percent of rural households and 41 percent of African American households have broadband service compared with 70 percent of households overall that have a computer, according to a new study by the Pew Internet Project, a nonprofit group. The same holds true for small rural businesses. They are less likely to use broadband services, in part, because of cost and lack of availability, according to several government studies.
The Media Access Project and other proponents framed the debate in a recent letter to Congress: “White space access is about improving local emergency communications networks, nurturing small businesses and entrepreneurship, creating competition in the broadband market, and ensuring that low-income, minority, and rural households are not left behind as our technology advances in the 21st century.”
That should be the standard by which the FCC’s actions are judged. And broad public awareness of the issues will give us our best chance to see that the agency gets it right . . . this time.