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FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s Roadshow: Now He’ll Headline the Cable Industry’s Big Splash

Phillip Dampier

Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski is racking up those frequent flier miles as he travels from one telecom industry trade show to another.  In addition to less-than-thrilling appearances at industry events run by the wireless industry and broadcasters, the chairman is now scheduled to be the headline act at the cable industry trade show to be held June 15 in Chicago.

Instead of devoting time and attention to provider profiteering and the ongoing concentration of the wireless marketplace, Genachowski will be shaking hands with big cable executives, sharing the stage with former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who now runs the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.  (Powell is a classic example of Revolving Door Syndrome: Start a career in public service and finish it using your government connections to cash in with a six figure salary working for the industry you used to oversee.)

While the current FCC chairman gets to bloat his expense account, his performance on behalf of the American people leaves plenty to be desired:

  1. His vision of our broadband future is all talk and little action, with National Broadband Plan goals seen as increasingly anemic when contrasted with broadband development abroad;
  2. Genachowski has caved on important consumer protections for broadband consumers, most notably with a very-industry-friendly Net Neutrality policy that won him little thanks (Verizon sued anyway);
  3. His “white space” broadband plan to carve up UHF broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband comes poorly conceived, infuriating broadcasters who promise to spend millions in a lobbying death match;

Julius Genachowski has plenty of time for speeches, but never enough time to protect consumers who want better broadband, more competition, and lower prices..

At the NCTA convention, Genachowski is likely to deal with the hot potato retransmission consent issue — the one that pits you in the middle of million-dollar squabbles over what pay TV provider gets to carry what networks (and how much you will pay for them).  Also on the agenda: CableCARD 2: Electric Boogaloo, also known as AllVid, the almost certainly Dead on Arrival replacement for the first generation CableCARD set top box replacement that practically nob0dy uses.

Although Google loves AllVid, the powerful entertainment and cable industry is less impressed.  The Motion Picture Association of America considers it a piracy gateway because it lacks sufficient copyright protection mechanisms, and the cable industry has always been wary of standardized set top equipment that could tie down on-demand programming, signal theft protection, and future innovations.

Genachowski is sure to get a warmer reception at the cable show than he got from broadcasters earlier this month, who were downright hostile over his proposal to carve up the UHF TV dial (channels 14-51), selling off “extra” channels for wireless broadband.

The National Association of Broadcasters is starting to get a little worried, not feeling the love the Commission has bestowed on big cable and phone companies who got their lobbying wish-lists largely granted.  Instead, a year after being dragged into an expensive digital TV conversion, the FCC is back for more from television broadcasters, taking back perhaps a dozen or more channels for “white space broadband,” a vaguely-explained plan to enhance the amount of space available for wireless data.

Unfortunately, with thousands of television stations, the FCC will have to find enough channels for everyone to share without interfering with each other.  The FCC still hasn’t released a definitive plan about how to accomplish this, and with big wireless interests suggesting TV stations should slash their transmitter power and share the same or adjacent channels, a lot of stations fear they will be crammed together like a Japanese train at rush hour.

But the wireless industry wants it, even if it drives some stations in densely populated areas off the air completely.  In many other areas, especially in the northeast and southern California, stations might have to cut their signal coverage areas to avoid interfering with stations sharing the same channel in an adjacent city.  Rural residents relying on over the air television could be out of luck, even with a rooftop antenna.

In a bidding war, who would likely win the spectrum up for sale?  AT&T, Verizon, and perhaps some large cable companies looking for enhanced wireless services to sell.  No wonder the NAB is worried.  The FCC could favor selling spectrum out from under your local stations and sell it to their biggest competitors in the pay television business.

Consumers should be concerned as well.  Should today’s biggest wireless carriers scoop up “white space” frequencies, it will do nothing to bring enhanced competition or lower prices.  It will just lock up even more spectrum for a wireless industry that threatens to become a duopoly.

Instead of flying all over the country to attend trade shows and shake hands with industry leaders, Chairman Genachowski should be spending more of his time looking for creative, effective solutions to enhance competition and protect consumers, not simply throw them under the bus for the benefit of a handful of industry players already too large for the common good.


Currently there are 8 comments on this Article:

  1. NorskeDiv says:

    Wait, the UHF whitespace is going to be auctioned off? The D-Block is going to be auctioned off, but to my knowledge the UHF white space is going to be opened for unlicensed wifi type stuff. There are already some muni networks in Texas operating on these frequencies. Any source that indicates the UHF whitespace will be auctioned off for exclusive use of the auction winner?

    • These are two different things. The unlicensed whitespace users, which include the WISPs you mentioned, and future Wi-Fi projects and routers, are very low powered applications that present little, if any risk, to other users. In fact, if you parked your Wi-Fi network on a channel where a UHF station existed, your wireless signal would be obliterated.

      The spectrum auction will sell off up to 120MHz of “unused” space currently occupied by the UHF TV band. The buyers would be wireless companies of some kind. If the FCC reserves the sale only for new entrants, we may get some new competition. But in the past, only the big boys have managed to win these big dollar auctions. Or worse, we get independent buyers who then rent or sell the spectrum to the big boys for the same result.

      Whatever ultimately gets sold off will either immediately, or in the future, be reserved for the buyer’s exclusive use. Any attempt to share it with unlicensed users will bring forth a dollar-a-holler campaign about “interference” and demands the other users vacate the spectrum.

  2. TK says:

    Phillip, your last sentence of your reply to NorskeDiv suggests that the auctions MAY trample on unlicensed white space wi-fi, as it sounds like we are still talking about the same frequency band for both applications and the Big Cell phone companies would not tolerate white-fi routers in their frequencies, or the devices may not even work there due to interference created by Big Cell.

    • It could be. As you’ll see in an upcoming piece, the UHF band is shrinking fast. If the latest FCC proposal wins approval, the UHF band I remember covering channels 14-83 in 1981 will soon only include channels 14-30, with most of the rest purchased by cell phone companies. I am not sure how much “white space” will be left as every UHF station in the country is crammed into 16 channels.

  3. Scott says:

    If the dynamic duo of cellular duopolies, AT&T and Verizon are allowed to bid on this auction, expect to see record bids as they outbid and block any potential competition, then pass the extra billions they paid onto current and new customers down the road.

    If the FCC was serious about competition they’d allow unlicensed use of the whitespace instead of auction it off to the few companies with the deepest pockets and no intention of serving the public good.

    • Bingo. AT&T and Verizon should not be allowed to bid on this, nor should the FCC play the game of awarding a set aside to “minority interests” who promptly win bids and then lease/sell the spectrum right back to the bully boys.

      Of course, restrictions usually bring lawsuits claiming their “free speech corporate rights” have been violated.

      I think unlicensed high power use is a bad idea because it will create an interference problem (but low power consumer use is fine). A better idea is to make sure every UHF station has enough spectrum to keep free TV alive, and then provide any excess to a new competitive entrant for wireless broadband.

      Also, the NAB is right about spectrum warehousing. There needs to be a 12 month expiration date on spectrum awards — use it or lose it. And the government still holds on to a ton of spectrum it does not need.

      I have never been in favor of selling spectrum to anyone, because customers end up paying higher costs to payoff the “sale.” Instead, I prefer the government grant spectrum to companies that agree to serve the public interest with it, with the provision that grant can be revoked if a company fails in that regard.

      • Scott says:

        Licensed use as long as it was relatively free minus fair charges for handling the paperwork to compensate the FCC would be fine with me. At least that way they could maintain a tigher reign over usage and stop potential signal interference. That’d be the most efficient route.

        I agree about keeping them from encroaching any further on free TV, as you pointed out in your other article the exaggerated claims of the cellular corporations like AT&T are just a land grab which they have little or no intention of ever developing. We’ve seen this same activity in every industry where there’s a resource that may become limited or can aid in blocking competition by the wealthier and more influential companies.

        A 12 month expiring award is definitely needed.

        We have the same problem with the Oil industry leasing sites and never developing them as promised, costing state and local areas millions in lost taxes and revenues when they could have gone to a competition.

        The billions of dollars for these bids will be paid using funds via the stock market investors who want their 3-5 year return, short term loans, or existing company funds.. that’s not free money and all of the above will certainly look to recoup their ‘cost of business’ on the backs of their customers.

        Funny how we all end up paying more in the end for what was supposed to be a free resource to benefit the public good that’s been sold off to the highest bidder… who then turns around locking it away to protect their existing business so nobody else can use it to compete with their existing market dominance.

  4. Re: “His “white space” broadband plan to carve up UHF broadcast spectrum for mobile broadband comes poorly conceived, infuriating broadcasters who promise to spend millions in a lobbying death match;”

    As I understand it, the broadband plan is not about mobile broadband, nor even urban broadband, just broadband where it is lacking: namely rural areas, TV white space is proposed as a solution for rural applications because TV frequencies don’t have the same line of sight constraints that microwave has. Vacant channels are abundant in rural areas, and the database management system would prevent interference with TV channels that exist.

    “Genachowski is sure to get a warmer reception at the cable show than he got from broadcasters earlier this month, who were downright hostile over his proposal to carve up the UHF TV dial (channels 14-51), selling off “extra” channels for wireless broadband.”

    Use of the channels for fixed broadband applications is free and unlicensed. The FCC plan allows broadband users to tap into vacant TV channels, identified for each geographic area by a database. Just like your Wi-Fi taps into the unlicensed 2.4 GHz..

    As for “selling off” the spectrum in the future, it seems illogical to think that the FCC spent years designing a plan for database administration of the white spaces just to auction off the spectrum later.

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