State of the Spectrum

Posted by Sam Churchill on

President Barack Obama on Tuesday called for expanding high-speed wireless services for consumers and businesses, during his State of the Union Speech.

“Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans. This isn’t just about a faster internet and fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.

It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

All these investments – in innovation, education, and infrastructure – will make America a better place to do business and create jobs.”

But a little fact checking shows that enabling high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans isn’t a new plan (pdf). That’s what the cellular operators and first responders have always said they’ll do. For a price.

Making broadband affordable — that’s the tricky bit.

You can get 1 Gbps fiber to the home in many places around the world, including Hong Kong, Japan and Amsterdam. In France, a $45 monthly plan includes 20-30Mbps connections, VoIP service, and HDTV with a DVR. Many countries offer broadband four times faster — for one quarter the cost. We can do it just as well. We have the spectrum. We have the technology.

The Obama administration has endorsed making 500 megahertz available over the next decade. The FCC hopes to repurpose some 120 megahertz of spectrum by enabling television broadcasters to auction their frequencies. Taxpayers, in effect, will subsidize broadcasters for spectrum that they never paid for or owned. It’s a sweet deal – and completely voluntary.

The FCC is likely to sign off Wednesday on plans allowing satphone start-up Lightspeed to lease its airwaves for traditional mobile phones, reports the WS Journal. LightSquared could then provide terrestrial wireless broadband without also having to sell satellite access for the rest of the country.

Why should cellcos have a divine right to our spectrum?

Unlicensed WiFi unleashed a flourishing of large and small businesses like nothing else before it. The United States economy benefited. Let’s not loose sight of that. The rush to sell off our spectrum for a quick buck may not be very smart – or fiscally prudent.

A 40-60 MHz chunk of spectrum, dedicated to municipal wireless, could save millions for municipalities (and taxpayers). Instead of subsidizing corporations half-owned by interests outside this country (and demanding 50% profit margins), why not build an enterprise-grade network on a cooperative basis. Independent ISPs could participate. Wireless broadband networks, with 10 or 20 times the range of WiFi, could be built for one quarter the cost. WiMAX delivers it today.

The NTIA says it plans to study the DOD’s 1755 MHz to 1850 MHz bands to see if the frequencies can be converted to commercial use. If it were combined with the “orphaned” 2155 to 2180 band, that’s at least 50 MHz. It ought to be “free” for municipalities. Half for them to use, half to lease out.

Why not a flat $10/mo for every 10Mbps. Like the French. Like the South Koreans. Cheap broadband is essential for our information economy. For newspapers. For magazines. For any individual with a good idea and the urge to explore.

It’s the best kind of “Sputnick” vision. For the people. By the people.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 at 8:09 pm .

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