5. Large Wireless Carriers and...
the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA); TV Broadcasters and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)
Issue: Wireless Spectrum
In 2005 Congress passed the Digital Television and Public Safety Act of 2005 (DTV Act), which mandates that the TV broadcasters convert their signals from analog to digital by February 2009. That will make available some tracts of analog wireless spectrum that are valued highly by competing Internet, telecommunications and broadcasting interests. Such spectrum is considered to be "beachfront property," partly because the signals that can be sent over it travel over long distances and can be received well indoors.
The 700-MHz War
The FCC will auction off 60 megahertz (MHz) of that spectrum within the 700 MHz band in 2008. A coalition of tech and public interest groups led by Google, called the Coalition for 4G in America, earlier this year argued hard for the FCC to apply a set of "open" standards to the entire 64-MHz chunk, so that it would support any device or any application. The FCC eventually agreed to that requirement for about half of the 64-MHz band of spectrum. Google acted at least partly out of self interest: The public Internet, whether accessed via landline or wirelessly, is Google's sole means of getting its services to the public, so of course it wants its search service to work over as many connected devices as possible.
Google and its coalition also asked the FCC to require the eventual licensee of the spectrum to share its network with competing wireless service providers. Under pressure from big wireless carriers like Verizon Wireless and Sprint, the FCC refused this last request. The wireless carriers want to be able to utilize and market that spectrum in the same way they do now--so that only certain devices work on the system in certain markets, while they remain under no obligation to share the network with other providers. The carriers accused Google and friends of simply trying to devalue the spectrum.
They also accused the Google coalition of trying to drive down the value of the spectrum to those who might build new networks on it. Here's the spin from the wireless carriers' industry group, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA): "CTIA opposes encumbering this valuable spectrum with unnecessary regulations and restrictions that place bidders on unequal footing, limit the utility of the spectrum, and ultimately drive down the value to consumers and the U.S. Treasury." CTIA says the spectrum, unencumbered, will "drive technological innovation, bring advanced wireless data services to rural America, and . . . contribute billions to the U.S. Treasury."
Google and its coalition partners believe that an "open" and nationwide wireless network using the 700-MHz band could create a third broadband pipe, an alternative to the cable or DSL lines sold by the cable and telephone companies. Of course, the big wireless incumbents are against this because they don't want the competition from a "third pipe." This is a worrisome situation, since the one person who could require that the band be open, FCC chairman Kevin Martin, has a long history of deregulatory and Big Telco-friendly rulings. Indeed, in Washington, if Big Telco really wants something, it usually gets it.
Between the Channels
After the broadcasters' transition to digital TV in 2009, the spectrum between 54 MHz and 698 MHz (between channels 2 through 51) will be used for digital television, but there will be spaces left over between the channels that could be used for other purposes. Those are called "white spaces," and the FCC is considering auctioning off licenses to that spectrum, too.
Technology companies like Microsoft are hoping to use some of that white space to connect low-power, mobile devices (such as laptops and iPhone-type PDAs). But the TV broadcasters, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), have launched a large lobbying campaign against using white spaces for Internet access. The NAB, through its lobbyists and TV ads, is saying that such devices will definitely interfere with the digital TV signal, which they say would result in poor picture quality for the folks watching at home.
Most recently, the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology tested a couple of devices to see if the broadcasters' fears are reasonable. The "High Tech White Spaces Coalition" (a collection of companies that includes Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Intel) submitted a device to be tested, as did Philips Electronics.
The results were complex, and left some doubt about the tech companies' claims that the devices would not interfere. The NAB immediately seized on this as a victory, but most observers would agree that more testing is necessary to decide the issue. The FCC has made no final decision, and the jury is still out on whether white spaces can be used to improve connectivity in the U.S.
What You Can Do
The outcomes of the legal and policy fights described above will have a direct affect on the quality, price, and functionality of the technology we consumers use in the coming years. If you care about such things, there are a number of ways to put yourself in the arena. The first thing is to get informed about the tech issues being discussed locally and nationally--PCWorld.com is a good place to start for that. Once you're armed with enough information to be dangerous, you can research a little further and discover exactly where your local, state, and federal representatives stand on the tech issues you care about. If you don't like what they say, e-mail, call, or write them and ask them to explain.
The Internet has also become a powerful tool for tech advocacy, and for virtually any major tech issue, you'll find a number of informational sites. These sites typically offer up-to-date news, opinion blogs, and studies to keep you informed, as well as petitions, contact information for elected officials, and form letters to help you make your views known.
Finally, tech policy is a major plank in the platform of any local, state, and national candidate for public office nowadays. Using resources like On The Issues.org, you can learn where the candidates stand on the tech issues that affect you, before giving them your vote.