The tangled web of broadcasting regulations

The FCC is preparing to approve licensing of "white space" spectrum, which is good for the public even if it poses challenges for broadcasters and mobile networks who paid top dollar for the right to have fewer competitors. Likewise, though the NAB supports a delay in the switchover to DTV, Congress should reject such legislation. It's time to get it over with.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

I've been writing this blog for over three years now, and for the most part, have managed to write at least two posts a week. This month, however, has proven harder than most. Granted, I've never blogged through an election season (nor through the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, but then again, as the Internet didn't exist back then, its safe to say no blogger has), and I'm finding the idea generating part of my brain pumps out more politically-related stuff than technology-related posts. That is good for iReport, and it got me interviewed by CNN yesterday (shameless self promotion here), but it means I'm suffering from technology writers' block from hell.

Interesting things are happening in the technology world, however, even if this blogger is as distracted as a two year old in a toy store.

It's starting to look like the FCC may approve "white space" devices which use the unlicensed spectrum that exists between TV and other licensed channels. Personally, I think that is spectacular news, though I can see why broadcasters and mobile phone networks aren't big fans of the idea. Those groups paid big bucks for owernship of spectrum, a price that not only reduces the potential number of competitors, but gives them a justification for charging higher prices.

"Public access" spectrum (which, in some ways, is what "white space" spectrum usage is all about) would challenge that model. It could make spectrum licensing a less valuable revenue spinner for governments, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Europe hobbled the prospects of 3G (the high-speed successor to traditional GSM) by auctioning spectrum at such high prices during the boom-90s that it almost killed the market for such service (3G providers have a real trouble making a profit given the costs associated with spectrum ownership).

The loss in up-front licensing fees, however, is more than offset by the public benefit to be derived by lowering the barrier to entry for use of spectrum that can cover large areas. To be frank, maximizing licensing revenue and protecting a small pool of well-funded incumbents shouldn't be an FCC goal. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), among others, may have vested interests which motivate them to continue the fight against such technology, but if the FCC truly has the public interest at heart, they should, in the end, fail in their challenge.

Of separate note, legislation will be introduced in Congress that aims to delay yet again the switchover to DTV. As things stand, analog broadcasting must end February 17th of next year. The NAB claims that 21.5 million are unprepared for the transition, though they are playing with numbers a bit. Only nine million US homes would be completely unable to receive any kind of television signal, while the rest just have a few TVs lying around the house that can't accept over-the-air DTV signals.

That's stretching things a bit, and so I think nine million is the real number that people should focus on. I understand the financial interest NAB members have in pushing for this legislation. Nine million fewer viewers after February 17th can reduce the value of advertising by some incremental amount.

On the other hand, there's no better way to make people aware of the switchover than to have their televisions stop working. To quickly resolve the problem, I think the NAB should ensure that stores have information about vouchers for converter boxes so that they are ready when cave-dwellers come in wondering why their rabbit-eared TVs don't work. Such a situation could be resolved in a few days, if handled correctly.

We've delayed the switchover too many times. Get it over with, already.

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