Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Spectrum Wrangle

Spectrum, spectrum, who's got the spectrum?  And who wants it?

Rumbles from Washington suggest that wireless broadband, in various technological flavors, is an emerging driver of federal technology policy.  It is seen as a necessary part of bringing broadband goodness to parts of America, particularly rural America.  Where population density is low, stringing new wires can be much more expensive than using towers and end-user antennas.  It can be done much more quickly as well.  (Let's set aside for the moment the question of the quality of the connection -- nothing comes close to beating fiber to the premises so far.)

In areas with a wired broadband infrastructure, wireless broadband offers hope of competition that might enhance user choices and put a brake on service fees. 

And then there are the smartphones.  The millions and millions of smartphones whose "apps" consume incredible amounts of wireless bandwidth.

The telecommunication and technology firms that would benefit from expansion of wireless broadband need one thing with increasing urgency -- telecommunications spectrum.  They need to have new communications frequencies allocated to their use.  Even if one cannot see the wireless "pipes" that link transmitter and receiver, like real pipes each frequency has a practical limit to the amount of traffic it can carry within a given geographic area.  In many areas saturation is within sight.

Television broadcasters, despite reallocations resulting from the recent transition to digital technology, still hold claims to one of the largest blocks of spectrum not already in the hands of wireless providers.  In many cases, that spectrum is unused.  TV execs hope to use it in the future, though exactly how is yet to be determined in most cases.  That notwithstanding, the broadcasters see their spectrum as key to their future.  The wireless vendors see that same spectrum as essential to theirs.

You may have already seen television commercials warning of a threat to free over the air television from politicians in Washington.  This is the opening shot of broadcasters' efforts to head off the formidable lobbying efforts of the telecommunications lobby.  It should be an interesting wrestling match. 

I'm not entirely sure who I am rooting for.  Wouldn't it be nice, though, if some broadcasters got together and used part of their spectrum allocations to develop their own wireless broadband services business?  Just a thought...

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