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Uncommon Untragedy

September 24, 2010

Undoubtedly, the biggest news you may (but more likely would not) hear about in the next few days is that the FCC has unanimously approved the development of the “white spaces” of the broadcast spectrum into a “super WiFi” network. These so-called white spaces are the parts of the broadcast spectrum that nobody has been allowed to put to use out of the century-old fear of potential interference if people used frequencies that were too close to one another to broadcast their signals. Even though these white spaces are probably worth $100 billion or more to companies that could give people free broadband Wi-Fi from miles away, we had been protecting the broadcasters that were scared that their audience might get static over their rabbit-eared antennae.

Although the FCC first voted to allow the use of white spaces for broadband nearly two years ago, the plan ran into serious opposition from television broadcasters worried about interference with their over-the-air signals. Wireless microphone manufacturers and users – including churches, theatres, karaoke bars and all types of performers – raised similar concerns.

Never mind the fact that Super Wi-Fi is almost certainly more valuable in monetary terms than any of these vestigial broadcast activities that are protected by the force and inertia of entrenched power and encumbered regulation. Never mind the fact that the broadcast spectrum is, like air, supposedly a public resource insusceptible to characterization as the “property” of anyone. Never mind the fact that broadcast television and radio are probably bad for your (mental, emotional, physical) health. All those facts are beside the point which is that data is data whether it’s audio, video, text, software, whatever. That’s why you would almost certainly watch broadcast TV networks over cable or satellite, not via terrestrial airwaves. By the exact same logic, these olden TV and radio broadcasters (and anyone else for that matter) could use just use super Wi-Fi networks for the same data transfer with much more efficiency if the receiving devices were updated. Information transmission can converge on whatever is the most efficient medium available if you develop the devices that tune into that frequency. But the scope of those frequencies, and therefore the media transmission devices that may be developed, are harshly circumscribed and restricted by the regulatory command of the FCC.

The theory that underlies the FCC’s authority to regulate the public airwaves (buried elsewhere in past entries) is that the potential for interference between competing stations would cause signals to be drowned out and/or create a tragedy of the commons by overgrazing and squatting, thus diminishing the value of the public resource. Suffice it to say that the technology on the device (i.e., receiver) level of data transmission has moved far beyond the blunt instrumentation that defined the days of early radio that gave rise to this thinking. The current array of proposals and applications for the white spaces is just the tip of the iceberg.

Want proof that device makers can sort things out for themselves more efficiently than the FCC? Consider the fact that every Wi-Fi base station in the United States operates on the tiny swath of spectrum that was originally reserved for garage door openers. That’s right, garage door openers. Now just imagine if you let developers run a bit more wild. We’ll see what they can pull out of the thin air.

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