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A Lot Of Noise In The FCC’s White Space Dilemma

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In case you had any hope left that the FCC really works for you, the taxpayer, and not for telecom incumbents, or even a smidge of optimism that the regulatory agency is competent, leave this article now, I’m about squash what hope you have remaining.

Because of attention and pressure, the FCC begrudgingly budged a bit on the 700 MHz spectrum auction – just enough to make it look like they wanted to foster competition in the broadband space without actually doing so – and even required AT&T to pretend to be in favor of Network Neutrality in a toothless BellSouth merger concession.

Another slice of spectrum is in question after the FCC approved the rules for the 700 MHz auction (which are null and void if the reserve isn’t met, and it’s likely now that it will not be). The new slice consists of "white spaces," or unused buffer areas in the spectrum to prevent signal interference.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, Dell, Earthlink, HP, Intel, and Philips have formed the "White Spaces Coalition" to persuade the FCC to allow entrepreneurs to develop fixed and mobile devices that utilize these airwaves. The FCC has argued that use of the white spaces is a bad idea, as there is no technology that prevents signals from bleeding into other signals in the spectrum.

These same companies have insisted that the technology does exist and is effective. Why are they so interested in proving that? Well, the same reason most likely AT&T wants to keep newcomers out of their market: money. But at least white-space spectrum opens up the mythical "third pipe" for wireless broadband access, and the coalition wants to be able to provide that third pipe.

Microsoft presented the FCC with a device that would prevent signal interference, which the FCC tested and rejected claiming the device didn’t work. The National Association of Broadcasters, who also have a vested interested in keeping the white space unused, lauded the FCC’s "rigorous" testing of Microsoft’s device, and commended the commission for warding off the "Russian Roulette" game Microsoft was playing with "America’s access to interference-free TV reception."

However, the NAB used the wrong adjective. Microsoft fired back at the FCC noting that their "rigorous" testing didn’t include a test of the backup unit that was sent, after the first device malfunctioned. Microsoft claims that their own testing of the backup device was successful, but it is hard to know if the FCC will be persuaded to test again.

But they don’t seem all that interested in exploring the possibilities of using white space for IP data transfer – or for anything else. M2Z Networks, based in California, applied for a license to use a swath of spectrum to develop a nationwide broadband wireless network. That license has been pending for 15 months, and the company is taking the FCC to court to force a decision.

Of course, forcing the decision most likely means a denial, which the FCC said was coming anyway – eventually. And really, that decision is (gasp) correct in the long-run, as M2Z mentions in their application "mandatory filtering of indecent and obscene material." But the company does correctly note that the commission took only nine months to approve the biggest merger in American history: AT&T and BellSouth, with complex antitrust and Net Neutrality concerns in tow.

Regardless of the accuracy of the statement that "Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of granting M2Z’s license application" (is this the first you’ve heard of them, too?), the company makes a resonant point:

“It took the FCC nine months to seek comment on our application, which is as long as it took the Commission to decide the largest telecommunications merger in history, the BellSouth/AT&T merger," said Milo Medin, M2Z’s chairman, in a statement.

"Not only is it the law, but it is commonsense to give license applications that increase competition at least the same treatment as license transfer applications for mega mergers that lessen competition.”

By working against Net Neutrality, open public airwaves, white space development, and newcomers to the broadband market, the current incarnation of the Federal Communications Commission has consistently shown it is less in favor of ensuring free markets and competition than it is of ensuring incumbents’ stranglehold upon it.

A Lot Of Noise In The FCC’s White Space Dilemma
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