The announcement that the White House that it would support reallocating the D Block – the 10 MHz of spectrum left over from big broadcast band auction of 2008 (the 700 MHz Auction) – to public safety use rather than auction it for commercial use defies conventional wisdom on two fronts. First, the National Broadband Plan called for an auction of D block to commercial providers as a means of providing critical spectrum for broadband, using the revenue to fund the construction of the public safety network, and giving public safety access to the rest of the 700 MHz band. Given that the Administration generally supported the FCC’s assessment that we have a looming “spectrum crisis” (although they took no position, until now, on D Block), why pull 10 MHz of prime spectrum ready for auction out of contention? Second, conventional wisdom holds that because of deficit concerns, lust for auction revenue will drive spectrum policy. But the White House not only endorses taking prime spectrum off the market, it wants to spend additionally billions on public safety infrastructure (under the FCC’s original plan, the auction of D Block would fund the build out of an interoperable national public safety network). So what happened?
I’ve been rather pressed for time, hence have not had much chance to blog on the FCC’s recent spectrum policy announcements for D-Block and the broadcast migration offer. Combine these two speeches with Genachowski’s recent statement in an interview that the NBP will finance the $25 billion via existing programs and it is clear that the FCC will adopt the T-Mobile’s “asymmetric auction” proposal for the AWS-2 and AWS-3 band, leaving M2Z high and dry. The only question is whether or not there will be spectrum caps to keep AT&T and Verizon from snarfing the good stuff, but do not expect the NBP to touch something as “controversial” as spectrum caps even by veiled implication the way the DoJ did in its comments.
Mind, this is another example of the “spectrum auctions are the crack cocaine of public policy” problem. The thirst for revenue pushes all other considerations out the window. I’m not convinced the T-Mobile approach is wrong (especially if subject to spectrum caps), and I think the D-Block finesse was extremely clever. But when revenue sits in the driver’s seat, policy invariably takes a wrong turn somewhere along the road. But it is difficult to imagine how Genachowski could resist a $15 bn secret cash cow to fend off accusations that Democrats are once again writing checks against our children’s future blah blah blah.
I unpack all this below. . . .
I surrender! I admit defeat. I cry “uncle.” You win. Despite my earlier doubts, I am now prepared to say the National Broadband Plan process is the most open, transparent, comprehensive, bestest and wonderfullest proceeding ever in the entire history of the FCC since passage of the Communications Act of 1934! Just please, please PLEASE no more public notices. [break off into uncontrolled sobbing]
Over a year ago, the FCC took a major leap forward on deployment of broadband and rethinking our national spectrum policy by voting to open the unused broadcast channels for unlicensed use (aka the “broadcast white spaces”). The Order left a bunch of questions unanswered, such as who would run the proposed database of available frequencies for white space use. Petitions for Recon got filed, lots of requests for revision and modification of the rules got made, and then nothing happened.
In fairness to OET, it’s been a busy year. First there was a change in administration, then it was “all DTV all the time” until the magic June 12 deadline. Then it was bringing on a new FCC Chair and two additional new Commissioners. Then it was “National Broadband Plan all the time.” But still, it was with a tremendous sense of relief that the process had not utterly vanish off the FCC’s radar screen that I saw the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology release a Public Notice on the database. At last! We can get moving on this again, and hopefully move forward on the most promising ‘disruptive’ technology currently in the hopper.
And move we are, in a very peculiar fashion. Rather than resolve the outstanding questions about how the database provider will collect money, operate the database, or whether the database will be exclusive or non-exclusive, the Public Notice asks would-be database managers to submit proposals that would cover these issues. Further, parties have until January 4, 2010 to submit proposals. The FCC will take comment from members of the public on the proposals a month later.
I label this approach “good, but weird.” On the one hand, this seems to my non-engineering and well ordered mind to be totally backwards. How the heck can anyone tell if they want to manage the database when they don’t even know what the requirements are. On the other hand, this basically accomplishes the same thing by having would-be operators that have been pestering the FCC to resolve the matter and trying to get the FCC to adopt rules that favor their own technology/business model a chance to stop pretending that these rules are neutral and the opportunity to make their pitch directly to the FCC. It also cuts down on the number of steps until we actually have a functioning database and can start deploying the technology. Finally, having just gone back and looked at the 2008 Order, the FCC was fairly explicit (Par. 221) that this was always the plan.
And, as usual, I really wish the FCC would not sit around taking months to decide things and then want an immediate response out of us poor public interest folks with our limited resources.
But on the whole, I’m very happy indeed.
More below . . .
Yes, for policy wonks in the summer, this is high drama. Once upon a time, before the 700 MHz auction, we used to have two very clear groups of stakeholders in spectrum policy land. We had public safety on one side and commercial wireless carriers on the other. (We also had us public interest folks, but no one — especially in the Wireless Bureau — gave a crap about us.) While these two groups might disagree internally, they solidified into utterly united and utterly opposing camps when confronting each other — regarding the battle for spectrum as a zero sum game with each side trying to wrestle every last MHz out of the other one.
But the 700 MHz changed all that. It cemented the spectrum advantage of AT&T and Verizon over all other carriers, breaking the commercial world into “AT&T and Verizon” and “carriers who need backhaul, roaming agreements, and special access — all of which they buy from AT&T and Verizon.” And it fractured consensus in the public safety community by creating the enormous loose end known as the “D Block.” As readers may recall (and if they don’t, you can check out my extensive coverage of the 700 MHz auction) the D Block was the private part of a public/private partnership where a private entity would bid and then build out the network, then enter into a sharing agreement with the public safety block. Sadly, for various reasons I will not rehash here, this didn’t work out.
And now, just when it looked like public safety was lining up behind AT&T and Verizon to lobby Congress to reallocate the D Block entirely to public safety, all Hell breaks loose. The “not Verizon and AT&T” wireless carriers have introduced a counter proposal to take back the 12 MHz on the public safety side of the partnership and auction the whole 22 MHz for commercial use as one, unpaired block. And they have received the backing, sort of, of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).
What drama to greet the arrival of Chairman Genachowski and the finally fleshed out full FCC! Commercial wireless carriers at war! Public safety in disarray! Spectrum brother against spectrum brother in the ultimate spectrum policy smackdown!
I analyze the possible deals, the potential winners and losers, and my guesses on odds for success below . . . .
I was delieghted and flattered to be asked to speak at the EDUCAUSE Policy Conference last week. EDUCAUSE represents the Higher Ed community on technology issues. In the last few years, I’ve worked with some amazing folks over there on spectrum policy, CALEA, and now network neutrality.
They read my my speech from the Community Wireless Summit last month and asked me to give something similar to get the crowd warmed up for the policy stuff.
I will eventually write it up more coherently. Until then, you can listen to it here. It clocks in at an hour, although it didn’t feel like it when I was talking (can’t speak for how the audience felt). It covers a number of themes relevant to the Conference, as well as repeating many of the same ideas as the Community Wireless Summit speech.
So if you’ve never met me and always wanted to know what I sound like, enjoy!
Stay tuned . . . .
To my surprise and delight, the good folks at Duke Law have produced this comic book to explain the law of fair use and how expanding copyrights is producing lots of “collateral damage” in the free speech department. Back when I was in law school I had an idea for an entire series of comic books dramatizing the law school curriculum. Happily for the world, I can’t even draw stick figures as well as Jim Snider did in his Cartoon Guide to Federal Spectrum Policy.
Stay tuned . . .
The good folks at the Champaign Urbana Wireless Network have just relased a very cool open source program that, when attached to a device built with components you cna buy in any electronic store, become a node in a mesh network. For less that a grand, you can “unwire” a whole neighborhood. Their press release is reprinted below.
The great significance of this from a Sausage Factory point of view is that federal policy in this area is completely unprepared for the ability of a few folks ona shoe string to develop a new, disruptive technology. Spectrum policy is usually about big companies or well financed start ups. The “two guys in the garage” model is not usual in spectrum, because it is so tightly regulated. That unlicensed spectrum and open source free people to do this sort of thing is yet another good argument for more unlicensed spectrum.
I’m actually cutting short my vacation to Pennsic to give the Keynote address at the 2004 National Summit for Community Wireless Networks on August 20-22, 2004. This conference is a meeting of folks deploying community wireless networks, policy wonks like yours truly, and anyone else who cares about revolutionizing spectrum policy and setting networks free. the goal is to educate each other and develop ways to move forward in a coherent movement that promotes positive spectrum management reforms. The announcement is reprinted below. Please circulate widely. Hope to see you all there.