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Beyond White Spaces

Back in 1999 I wrote a column that envisioned the uses of digital wireless in the home. I compared two nascent, much-touted wireless protocols, Bluetooth and HomeRF. I completely, totally, slippery-dash missed Wi-Fi. There had been a public 802.11 spec since 1997. The first 802.11b devices, which made Wi-Fi popular, burst onto the scene in early 2000, just a few short months after my clueless insights. Today HomeRF is forgotten, Bluetooth is for ugly ear jewelry and Wi-Fi rulz.

Broadband over Power Line (BPL), once touted as The Third Pipe, is another dud. DSL Reports just declared 2008 The Year BPL Died, citing tech problems, performance problems and market problems. BPL’s flaws have been obvious for years to those whose salary doesn’t depend on its success. Rahul Tongia’s 2004 paper, Can Broadband Over Powerline Carrier Compete? should have been the last nail in its coffin. I blogged BPL-RIP in 2005, saying, “BPL is so crippled there’s no ‘disruptive’ in it.” The mistake persisted for years longer than it should have, supporting the myth that multi-modal competition is a substitute for national policy. Today all who look see that fiber rulz.

There’s so many things a new technology needs to get right if it is to succeed. First it needs to be significantly better than what’s out there already. It needs to be cheaper out of the gate. It needs to open up new markets and prove itself useful. It needs to achieve economies of scope and scale. It needs economics that won’t strangle it in its crib.

White spaces, the FCC proceeding about using digital TV spectrum that’s only lit in cities far away, strikes me as YARV, yet another risky venture. My friends at Google and the New America Foundation held a meeting on white spaces the other day. The title of the meeting, “Pervasive Connectivity,” seems an over-reach without a systems approach that includes pervasive fiber and already-deployed wireless protocols, such as Wi-Fi and LTE. Who’s going to build devices in such scale that they’ll out price-performance Wi-Fi? Who’s going to offer service that’ll out-pervade the cellular network? And what about that one critical factor that every wireless network must consider, backhaul?

The white space idea is fraught with unsolved issues. In its first incarnation, its radios will only broadcast at 40 milliwatts, which raises doubts about any advantage it might have over Wi-Fi. (Meanwhile, Wi-Fi itself keeps improving.) One wireless data expert I know suspects that propagation characteristics around 300-400 MHz could cause major problems. Another expert I know, considering all the issues, suggests that white space may find its niche in under-served, e.g., rural, areas. Neither was heard at the “Pervasive Connectivity” meeting. Such views, no matter how correct, are problematic when specific policy change is the over-arching goal.

The FCC may or may not consider white space in its meeting on November 4, which conveniently falls on election day. Hey, the FCC was all for BPL. Indeed, the FCC absolutely should allow white space experiment to proceed; sins of commission, pun intended, are better than sins of omission, especially when they allow honest experimentation.

Google’s strategy is an incremental, multi-frontal approach. That’s OK, we need to make progress where we can. Even if the progress is limited to, “yet another experiment.” But, in addition, there should be another effort, a big, synoptic plan, that rises above specific technologies and specific policy agendas, that uses all of the expertise available, to craft a comprehensive vision worthy of the moniker “Pervasive Connectivity.”

Suppose in the next few months we get the opportunity to propose a real plan for Pervasive Connectivity for our nation, could we rise to the occasion? Or would we remain conditioned to the mindset of the last eight years, when small increments counted as great victories. Naomi Klein cites Milton Friedman’s idea that in a nodal moment, the ideas implemented are the ideas lying around. Rick Perlstein, in an essay called, A Liberal Shock Doctrine, points out that even progressive progress occurs in spurts, at opportune times. We shouldn’t limit our vision to one specific technology or one tactically available sliver of spectrum. Now is the time to have a comprehensive plan “lying around” for the network we really want.

Update: My post should in no way give credence to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) “emergency” request for the FCC to drop the white space issue from its November 4 meeting. The NAB is calling on the Commission to seek further public comment, but Jake Ward, of the Wireless Innovation Alliance, notes that the item has been under consideration for almost 4.5 years and the FCC has received almost 30,000 comments on it. Sorry, NAB, the FCC isn’t here to protect the broadcasters. It is time to test this idea in the real world.

By David Isenberg, Principal Prosultant(sm), isen.com, LLC

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