One of my favorite lines of all time is from a (original) Star Trek episode - (if memory serves, The Tholian Web) where Captain Kirk says (paraphrased) Yes, we have them right where they want us.
I imagine Verizon Wireless and AT&T's smugness at "winning" the majority of the 700 MHz auctions last week evaporated somewhat when they (hopefully) came to the same realization as Captain Kirk - Uh oh... we have Google right where Google wanted us.
With their announcement* at a press conference a few days ago about wanting to extend (what I'll call, broadly) "Wi-Fi principles" into license-exempt use of television broadcasting channels that are currently unused (whitespaces) I think that Google has executed a brilliant "fake" in the 700 MHz auctions. I believe that, initially, Google was sincere in its stated interest in acquiring 700 MHz spectrum licenses. Or, perhaps they just had some bad advice, now gone. Or (I'd like to think...) Google finally considered some good advice (see point 3) from the guy who (as far as I know) first advocated the concept - in an obscure magazine in January, 2002.
My take on the recent 700 MHz auctions
My strong prediction is that the transfer of the 700 MHz spectrum from television broadcasting to communications simply won't result in any significant, noticeable change in respect to better, more competitive wireless telephony or wireless Internet services becoming available to the American public. We have ample evidence to date that more spectrum in the hands of incumbent service providers merely results in more of the same. Verizon Wireless and AT&T may eventually implement their 700 MHz spectrum into their services... but more than likely, they won't. They don't have to. They'll pay their bill to the FCC, take title to the spectrum, and then simply "sit" on their new spectrum holdings... as AT&T is sitting on its earlier purchase of the majority of the licenses from the earlier 700 MHz auctions, and its 2.3 GHz spectrum. The overarching goal of Verizon Wireless and AT&T in the 700 MHz auctions was achieved achieved very well - to take the 700 MHz spectrum out of the reach of companies that could potentially use it to create competitive services in their most lucrative markets.
So, the grandiose hopes that new Broadband Internet Access services would result from the 700 MHz auctions have run aground on the shoals of the fundamental reality of exclusively licensed spectrum that is allocated via highest-bidder-wins auctions - that the entrenched, well-capitalized incumbents will buy it up and sit on it.
But, meanwhile, the big prize in Broadband Wireless Internet Access, and the epic struggle of the wireless industry, will be television broadcast band white space
What Verizon Wireless and AT&T, and a handful of smaller players "won" at the 700 MHz auctions was a few tens of MHz of spectrum that they can exclusively, utterly, and totally control in particular areas - licensed spectrum.
In comparison, what's at stake in television broadcast band white space is (very conservatively calculated**) 168 MHz. Google, and its (sometime... the Google letter isn't listed on the site, indicating that Google "went it alone" on this one) collaborators in the Wireless Innovation Alliance have begun to understand the power of license-exempt spectrum allocation.
But in the attempt to share "television broadcast spectrum", it's felt that the television broadcasters will have to be placated... for a while. Google is somewhat conciliatory towards both the television broadcasters and wireless microphone users in its proposal. The television broadcasters understand that they can't stall the use of television broadcast white space forever, so they're willing to accommodate some limited, tightly controlled white space use, as evidenced by their encouragement of the 802.22 standard (which, I predict, will now get some serious momentum behind it in the wake of Google's white space proposal).
But you can begin to sense the panic emanating from AT&T and Verizon Wireless about Google's white space proposal the panicked response of the CTIA (so panicked that they haven't posted any formal statements on their web page, but the FCC filing is here - PDF) that television broadcast spectrum white spaces also should allocated, auctioned, and exclusively licensed to the highest bidder.
OK... color me clueless... but didn't the wireless telephony industry just accomplish that very thing with the 700 MHz auctions?!?!?!?
The CTIA's scrambling in their document is... just... funny! They try to offer licensing as the "solution" for "protecting" the "incumbent secondary users" of television broadcast white spaces, such as public safety land mobile (two-way) radio operations in channels 14-20, and medical devices using Channel 37, and wireless microphone users. Those concerns are very simply accommodated by simply "locking out" certain channels as unusable by license-exempt white space devices; how that's accomplished is done in any number of ways. My idea in 2002 was to make the devices smart enough to "hear" television broadcasting, with the simple expedient of embedding a (DTV, now) tuner chip and if a (DTV) signal is heard, the license-exempt device can't use that channel. To accommodate land mobile radio on 14-20, lock those channels out. Ditto Channel 37, and at least a few channels for wireless microphones. Simple; easy, inexpensive... but all suffer from the "fatal flaw", in the eyes of the CTIA's members that competitive services could potentially get started using license-exempt television white spaces... and the last thing the wireless telephony industry wants, having spent decades, and untold billions of dollars consolidating into a comfortable oligopy... is effective competition... that the can't co-opt through their usual means of buying 'em out and freezing out competitive uses of spectrum.
What the CTIA knows in its filing is that television broadcast white spaces is merely a brief stopgap on the way to severely consolidating the television broadcast spectrum(s) considerably more. Remember that there were originally 83 television broadcast channels. 70-83 became the original (analog) cellular telephone band and the 800 MHz public safety and commercial two-way radio bands. Now we've given over channels 52-69 to more commercial and public safety communications use. It's just a matter of time ... and demand... before there's yet another round, or two, of further consolidation of television broadcasting and "freeing up" of, say, channels 31-50 - a further 120 MHz.
But license-exempt communications use of television broadcast white space would make another reallocation of television broadcast spectrum totally impossible! Once there are millions of license-exempt devices (and networks of devices) out there "in the wild", they couldn't be recalled. The television white spaces would be "forever polluted" for the kind of "stupid wireless" command-and-control communications systems that wireless telephony technology uses. WiMAX is no different than wireless telephony systems in this regard - there are no "cognitive" capabilities in "licensed" communications systems because the license is "the intelligence" in the system that insures that systems function well and don't cause interference. Cognitive techniques, on the other hand, assume that there will be interference, and accommodate interference when it does occur... and keep working.
Eventually... we won't be playing this "accommodation" game with the television broadcasters. It's only necessary until politicians, policymakers, industry players such as the Wireless Innovation Alliance, and eventually the public come to realize that only ten percent (and shrinking) of those who watch "broadcast" television now receive their television programming over-the-air (actual broadcasting). The rest watch their television programming via satellite or cable, and in the last few years, Internet. Eventually, (to use another Star Trek phrase...) The needs of the many [will] outweigh the needs of the few. and television broadcast will be seen as an anachronism, especially in the wake of the much better television reception made possible by Digital Television which will take fully take effect on February 18, 2009. Simply, with Digital Television broadcasting (DTV) we won't need 50 television broadcast channels allocated; we'll need perhaps ten, total. All the rest of the content will have migrated off "broadcast" because it's cheaper, there are fewer content restrictions, and that's where 90% (and growing) of the audience (already!) is.
* I read more than a dozen stories about Google's white space announcement. None of those deigned to reference any primary source material from Google. Google didn't list it on their web page, The "Wireless Innovation Alliance" was mum on Google's announcement, and I couldn't find it on the FCC's web byzantine web page. Only one journalist went to the trouble of ferreting out Google's letter to the FCC and listing a link - John Murrell of Good Morning Silicon Valley. Murrell does some of the very best reporting - anywhere, and his stuff is incredibly on-target and he wields his razor-sharp wit with skill and a total absence of fear. GMSV under Murrell is highly recommended!
** Scenario 3 (from my private research notes)
Google white space proposal to reserve 36 and 38 for wireless microphones,
No use of channels 2-13 (heavily used, problematic propagation, problematic antenna issues),
No use of channels 14-20 to accommodate land-mobile radio in some areas,
No use of channel 37
Channels 21-35 and 39-51 - "UHF": 15 + 13 = 28 channels x 6 MHz = 168 MHz (512 - 602 and 620 - 698 MHz)
By Steve Stroh
This article is Copyright © 2008 by Steve Stroh except for specifically-marked excerpts. Excerpts and links are expressly permitted (and encouraged).
This article was written and posted via Broadband Wireless Internet Access (BWIA); Clearwire service using a NextNet Wireless / Motorola Expedience Residential Service Unit (RSU).
You can learn more at Zero Retries Newsletters page.