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Editorial

Give our airwaves some air

Opening up more spectrum for wireless uses will advance the public interest. Reserving some for unlicensed uses is key to protecting future innovation.

August 23, 2011

Policymakers in Washington agree that more airwaves should be made available for wireless services, but they clash over some important details — for example, how to make the most efficient use of the prime airwaves occupied by TV broadcasters. There's also a philosophical split over whether to set aside some of these additional airwaves for unlicensed uses, rather than selling them all to the highest bidders. Lawmakers should heed the lessons of history on that front. The experience with Wi-Fi shows that making spectrum available for wireless spurs innovation and broad public benefits, although it's impossible to predict what that innovation will look like or what those benefits will be.

The demand for spectrum is being driven by the phenomenal popularity of smartphones and mobile applications. The Federal Communications Commission has called on Congress to free up more frequencies by offering television broadcasters this deal: If they give up at least part of their channels' airwaves, which they use for free, they'll receive a portion of the proceeds when those frequencies are auctioned. Such incentive auctions could clear a considerable amount of spectrum for mobile wireless uses.

Competing bills to create the auctions have been introduced in the Senate and the House, and they take sharply different approaches to unlicensed spectrum. The version approved in June by the Senate Commerce Committee (S 911) would let the commission set aside frequencies for unlicensed use after a sizable amount of TV bandwidth had been recaptured for licensed uses. The draft bill by Rep. Greg Waldman (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce telecommunications subcommittee, would require companies that want unlicensed frequencies to join forces and outbid everyone else for those airwaves.

The advantage to auctions is that they take politics and favoritism by the commission out of the equation. They're also brutally efficient, favoring uses that the public is willing to pay for over those that are purely speculative. But they're a poor way to judge the value of unlicensed spectrum. That's because the best use of those airwaves isn't likely to emerge for years, so it can't be quantified today.

Just look at Wi-Fi, which uses the 2.4 Ghz band previously reserved for scientific, medical and industrial uses (think microwave ovens). The FCC opened those airwaves for unlicensed devices in 1985, more than a decade before a standard for Wi-Fi emerged and the technology started bringing computer networks to the average home.

Granted, giant technology companies such as Microsoft, Dell and Google have visions for how a new unlicensed band could be used. But it's unrealistic to expect such fierce competitors to pool together and buy airwaves — there's no business model to support that. Nor do they have an interest in creating fertile ground for upstarts with new technology. The public, on the other hand, does. The goal of reclaiming spectrum shouldn't be just to amass the largest possible amount of cash for the Treasury. It should be to advance the public interest, including its real but unquantifiable interest in innovation.

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