Unleashing the Potential of Wireless Broadband: Over-the-Air TV Broadcasting Is an Obstacle to the Faster Growth of Technologies and Services That Could Produce Great Economic and Social Benefits

By Hundt, Reed E. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Unleashing the Potential of Wireless Broadband: Over-the-Air TV Broadcasting Is an Obstacle to the Faster Growth of Technologies and Services That Could Produce Great Economic and Social Benefits


Hundt, Reed E., Issues in Science and Technology


Broadcast TV, once vilified by former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton Minnow as a "vast wasteland," can now also be characterized as a vast roadblock--specifically, a roadblock to the rapid expansion of digital wireless broadband technologies that could produce great economic and social benefits for the United States. In a nutshell, TV broadcasters have thus far been reluctant to vacate highly desirable parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that were lent to them by the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s in order to broadcast TV signals over the air. But the broadcasters no longer need this analog spectrum, because most Americans today receive TV signals from cable or satellite. Meanwhile, purveyors of services using new wireless broadband technologies are locked into inefficient parts of the spectrum that are severely hindering their development. These new technologies are capable of delivering data, video, and voice at vastly higher speeds than today's cable or DSL connections and consequently could speed the development of a wealth of new applications that could transform society. They also could help reignite the telecommunications boom of the 1990s and create billions of dollars of value and thousands of new jobs. It is time for Congress and the FCC to take the steps needed to free up suitable parts of the spectrum--starting with the spectrum used to broadcast analog TV signals--to pave the way for the expansion of digital wireless broadband.

To understand the issue of spectrum allocation, it is important to understand what spectrum is. Electromagnetic waves all move at the same speed, at least for all purposes relevant to daily life and business activity. They oscillate, however, at varying frequencies. When the FCC sells or gives away spectrum, it actually is granting a license to use certain frequencies, either exclusively or in conjunction with other users.

All waves can be interrupted and modified in various ways. These changes in waves, like the tapping of a key connecting to a telegraph, can be used as a code that conveys information. The code can be music, as in the case of radio; or pictures, as in the case of broadcast and satellite TV; or email, as in the case of a Blackberry; or anything at all that can be appreciated by the eyes or ears. The senses of taste, smell, and touch are not well evoked by code, as of this writing.

Waves of different frequencies have different propagation characteristics. At some frequencies waves can travel without being absorbed or distorted by material objects; in other words, they go through buildings. Broadcast TV and radio use such waves. By contrast, most cellular telephones use waves that do not easily pass through walls.

The best reason to have the government grant licenses for frequencies rather than to treat them like water, which one can scoop up or drill for or collect from the skies without government permission, is that if two people make machines that emit waves at the same frequency, the waves can cancel each other out so that neither succeeds at transmitting its coded content. Some argue that those who interfere with each other can go to court or negotiate their conflict, just as neighbours may sue each other or compromise out of court concerning irritating behavior, such as the use of a leaf blower. But the transaction costs that would ensue are high, and on balance it seems practical to have a license regime.

However, in order to promote competitive markets and permit freedom of expression, it makes sense for government to grant as many licenses as can be issued without creating intolerable conflicts of use. For those who wish to emit messages (for example, to send broadcast TV or enable cell phone calls) there is a cost to using a frequency. The frequencies that penetrate buildings (which are lower on the spectrum) are particularly valuable because it is less costly to use them to send messages than it is to use the frequencies that do not penetrate buildings as well. …

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Unleashing the Potential of Wireless Broadband: Over-the-Air TV Broadcasting Is an Obstacle to the Faster Growth of Technologies and Services That Could Produce Great Economic and Social Benefits
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