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Rethinking the Spectrum Crisis

Here at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, you can hardly attend a session where the National Broadband Plan’s proposal to reallocate 120 MHz of television spectrum to wireless broadband is not a major topic of discussion. As we mentioned in a posting last week, and based on the discussions here at NAB, it is increasingly clear that there is indeed a spectrum crisis. However, the crisis relates not to a shortage of spectrum, but to a growing crisis of confidence that the FCC looked at the full record in reaching its dire conclusion that the spectrum sky is falling (seemingly on broadcasters).

In a commentary in today’s TVNewsCheck (free registration) by our Pillsbury colleague and resident skeptic John Hane entitled The Emperor’s New Spectrum Crisis, John follows up on our discussion last week of Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg’s statement that he doesn’t see a looming spectrum crisis, and is confident that issues of wireless capacity can and will be addressed through technological developments rather than through reallocating broadcast spectrum.

John’s commentary, which is a compelling read, focuses not on Mr. Seidenberg’s statement, but on the somewhat surprising response to it in a blog post by FCC Chief of Staff Edward Lazarus. The post says the record in the National Broadband Plan proceeding shows “overwhelming” agreement that America needs more broadband spectrum, and pretty much indicates total befuddlement that Mr. Seidenberg could disagree. However, John’s commentary discusses numerous sources in the record of the broadband proceeding and elsewhere that challenge that conclusion.

I won’t give away the ending, because John’s commentary deserves a full read rather than just a summary by me. However, it does make one wonder if the dedicated team at the FCC behind the National Broadband Plan — obviously big fans of broadband and the Internet — aren’t falling prey to that most common of Internet phenomena, groupthink. Victims of groupthink tend to congregate with those of similar views, and when faced with information that conflicts with those views, prefer to reflexively reject that information as wrong rather than seeking to integrate it into their analysis and then revise their conclusions accordingly.

There certainly will be demand for additional wireless broadband spectrum in the future, just as there is currently demand for more spectrum for existing technologies, and will be in the future for technologies yet unimagined. However, demand for spectrum and a spectrum crisis are two very different things. The first has existed since Marconi came upon the scene, and the second has never come to pass, with technology always jumping in to avert such a result. By seeking to fling immense quantities of spectrum at broadband, the FCC would actually discourage this ingenuity and the development of more spectrum-efficient broadband technologies. History has shown repeatedly that a resource will only be fully exploited if the supply is limited. Abundance leads to waste, and 500 MHz of spectrum is abundance of the first order.

If the spectrum to be provided was currently unused, you could argue that the harm is theoretical. However, where a major portion of the spectrum would come from a lifeline service available at no cost to all Americans, you have to be sure that every bit of that spectrum is needed, and not just wanted, by the broadband industry. When a major figure in the broadband industry tells you the spectrum isn’t needed, it is worth considering whether that aspect of the National Broadband Plan needs revisiting.