16 October 2008

White Space Invaders

Whew...

I'm trying my darndest to stay abreast of the labyrinthine changes going on with the 700 MHz spectrum and its white spaces (witness the new RSS feed in the upper right corner of the blog).

But honestly, it boggles the mind sometimes. I'm approaching things from the perspective of an audio professional, but the issue is so much more far-reaching than our industry alone. Rapidly, it is becoming one of internet access, gatekeeping, and the major carriers scrambling to put the genie back in the bandwidth bottle, even though we, as tax paying American citizens, own the spectrum ourselves.

Recently, the FCC approved a proposal for free nationwide wireless broadband, but in the AWS-3 band, which resides around 2155-2180 MHz. I've stated before that I think that every person on earth should have free, wireless internet access provided to them, and this proposal is a definite step in the right direction. It would be content-filtered for kids (adults can opt-out), and tiered in terms of speed: low-speed for free, high-speed for a fee.

The carriers, of course, are getting a bit itchy. If this plan reaches the intended penetration levels, it would seriously threaten the status quo. After all, why would someone pay for something they legally get for free? Ultimately, it would force their hands to either offer true broadband that the rest of the developed world enjoys (rather than the trickling faucet we're now being gouged for), or lower their prices.

But whither the 700 MHz band, that unlicensed spectrum that TV, film, sports events, live shows and houses of worship have all built themselves upon? Some is being allotted to first responders, with little argument from anyone. But the rest is still up in the air, no pun intended. Seeing as how a national internet initiative was given the green light in another band, you'd think we were out of the woods, but not so. Already, the FCC has outlawed the further sale of any new wireless microphones in those blocks.

I said before that I'd be perfectly willing to sacrifice that spectrum if it meant open internet access for low-income people. But since the current proposal is in a totally different band, the 700 Mhz white spaces are going to be put to use (primarily by AT&T and Verizon) for a new generation of wireless devices (iPhone et al).

While a schmancy mobile internet device can be a good thing (indeed, I'm chomping at the bit to get my hands on a G-1), it certainly isn't the same as providing a public service like net access to the general public. The already crowded airwaves just became standing-room only, which will force the aforementioned industries to adapt, at great cost, which, of course will be passed on to the consumer. For TV, this most likely means more commercials; for live shows and sporting events, higher ticket prices.

The 500 pound gorillas here are the major carriers. The coveted spectrum is an untapped market for selling lucrative data plans to existing mobile subscribers, though it ultimately seems a bit short-sighted. A medium is nothing without content, and the carriers have just caused the content creators' baseline costs to rise.

For example, one of the most appealing things about reality television (which could not exist without dependable wireless microphones) is the incredible margins; it's dirt-cheap to produce. If this kind of cash cow goes away due to increasing technical costs, all content is going to go up in price. This, in turn, will mean increased licensing costs for the carriers to access that content, which means that data plans either remain at their initial price points and become less profitable (unlikely), or they become so expensive that customers are put off. Sure, people will always want email and SMS, but a real time-suck like watching TV clips online is what keeps the data meter running.

On the other hand, this may encourage a return to more scripted fare by the networks (which, while modern production styles still require wireless, a handful of actors on a set for short takes is a far cry from the "wire everyone and roll" MO of reality). This paradigmatic shift could provide an outlet for new talent and ideas if the industry goes back to the narrative storytelling upon which it built its foundations. It may foster a return to more substantive content, rather than the cotton candy ephemera that dominates today.

One can always hope.


Article round up:

Free WiFi? That's So 22nd Century

FCC Clears Free National Internet Plan
America May Get Broadband For Free, But Porn Will Cost You
AWS-3, white spaces clear initial hurdles but will they survive?

FCC, Wireless Providers at Odds Over Plan for Unused Airwaves

FCC set to vote on white-space issue Nov. 4

In Spectrum Auction, Winners Are AT&T, Verizon and Openness
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