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What Is The Big Fuss About 700MHz Spectrum

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700Mhz Band Plan from FCC

I’ve been pretty confused by all the back-and-forth reported by traditional media surrounding the upcoming auction for a measley 30Mhz slice of the upper band of the 700Mhz spectrum (shown above). Comments from Google, Verizon, the FCC itself and countless others have provided a lot of color but no clarity. What’s the fuss about?

Currently used for UHF analog channels in the “60’s”, by 2009 this slice called “the Upper 700Mhz band” could be re-purposed to wireless carriers, mobile TV platform providers, or open access internet for anyone – perhaps especially in rural areas.

Yet the more I read the more confused I became. What no one had explained to my satisfaction was the future use and constraints of this piece of the broadcast spectrum. Said dead simply – what is this piece of the spectrum useful for and why is there such a frenzy of political wrangling over it?

Way back in March of this year blogger Om Malik of GigaOM wrote up a great post explaining some of the basic concepts of 700Mhz. See http://gigaom.com/2007/03/14/700mhz-explained/

You can also go directly to the FCC auction description website to read more about current plans, regulations, and requirements – http://wireless.fcc.gov/auctions/default.htm?job=auction_summary&id=31

What is nice about 700Mhz waves is they go far and can penetrate walls. After all, they’ve worked for analog TV now haven’t they? So any cellular phone service provider might instantly lust after the possibility of fewer towers yet better reception. Of course the longer-range, more accessible signal comes with a price. And that price – at least with today’s technology – appears to be bandwidth. But despite the apparent limitation this spectrum auction appears to have captured the imagination of lobbyists and corporations alike on the possibility of providing a “3rd pipe.”

A public advocacy group called Public Knowledge asserts the following on their website:

“The Federal Communications Commission is poised to set the terms of the most valuable auction of spectrum — the public airwaves over which broadcasters and cell phone companies operate — we will likely ever see. This auction involves a large portion of spectrum that broadcasters are to return as part of the nation’s transition to digital TV. The characteristics and location (in the 700 MHz band) of this spectrum make it ideal for the development of a third, nationwide broadband Internet provider that could compete with the powerful incumbent telephone and cable companies which control 96% of broadband lines in this country. But unless the FCC takes a very different course than it has in past auctions, this valuable resource will most likely end up in the hands of those very companies.”

Think of it this way – do you want to be trapped by a monopoly or near-monopoly environment for access to the public internet? Should 1 or 2 companies control access and set pricing? And if that were to happen (and make no mistake, it is happening) then will restrictions on content and applications come next. The cellular phone providers have kept an iron-grip on customers by crippling blue-tooth, restricting software that can run on mobile devices, etc. As more and more of the net goes mobile, what does that mean?

So, if you see Google as a sort of a nice, rich benefactor of the masses, then their desire to bid on the spectrum only if the FCC puts requirements in place around open access can be seen as protecting our freedom of choice. In my view, it certainly protects Google’s unbelievably massive advertising business as well, so chalk it up to enlightened self-interest.

Here’s an engineering assessment & policy recommendation pdf for more information. And since I’m forking over $58 to Comcast every month for internet access, I guess I’ll close by wishing Google well in their efforts to pursue a wireless open access network.

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Written by Dave Stephens

07/25/07 3:24 PM at 3:24 pm

Posted in Opinion

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