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White Spaces Could Be the Broadcasters Best Hope

For years, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) fought the White Spaces Coalition and others interested in making US “TV white spaces” available for broadband, Wi-Fi or indeed, any new purpose. When the FCC voted 5-0 to permit license exempt use of TV White Spaces, the industry brought suit in Federal court. And they did this, despite rules in the FCC’s decision that are so restrictive that, for now, white spaces devices are doomed to commercial failure. The NAB are savvy in the ways of Washington.

But fighting the White Space Coalition is short sighted. The NAB faces a much bigger and more powerful enemy—mobile operators.

The White Spaces Coalition merely seeks permission to use spectrum where NAB members are not using it, i.e. on a non-interference basis as “secondary users” with purely secondary rights.

The mobile industry wants it all. They’d prefer that broadcast spectrum be taken back and auctioned off for mobile use. Discussions on recapturing broadcast spectrum ramped up after an October comment by FCC broadband czar Blair Levin. For example see the transcript of this December 1st panel discussion. Or consider last week’s appointment of Duke Law Professor Stuart Benjamin as the FCC’s first Distinguished Scholar in Residence. Benjamin is a vocal proponent of reclaiming the TV broadcast spectrum!

Broadcasters beware!

Unlike the White Spaces Coalition, the mobile operators are political experts. They are part of a 100+ year telecom lobbying heritage. The Bell System was lobbying government agencies before the broadcast industry existed. Now Congress is considering spectrum policy. The FCC is considering spectrum policy.

Broadcasters may eventually extort large sums of money out of the public, but over the next decade they will lose more and more of their spectrum. I am no fan of the broadcast industry. Even after converting to more modern “digital” broadcasting, they are sitting on spectrum they don’t need in order to deliver a limited number of channels of broadcast TV to the 14% of households who don’t subscribe to cable. I’m one of those 14% and I don’t even watch TV, so I have no interest in broadcasters’ survival. But I can’t help noticing there is one thing broadcasters could do that would block mobile operators from taking over broadcast spectrum.

White spaces can save broadcasters’ spectrum rights

If license exempt white space devices are commercially successful, it will become increasingly difficult and then politically impossible for Congress or the FCC to recapture TV spectrum for exclusive use by the mobile industry. If Wi-Fi, WiMAX and other consumer devices appear using TV frequencies, it will become harder and harder to displace these consumer uses and recapture the exclusive use the mobile industry requires.

So, if the broadcast industry really wants to hold onto their current spectrum rights, they should get as many non-interfering “secondary users” into their band as possible. Otherwise, they will eventually lose their primary rights to the quest for more mobile broadband.

By Brough Turner, Founder & CTO at netBlazr

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