Spectrum Dot Gov

During a September 2001 NPR interview, then Illinois State Senator Barack Obama criticized our Constitution for failing to address what he called "redistributive justice."

Way back then, nobody paid much attention to this obscure wunderkind. Most of us average citizens were still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More recently, though, out-of-control deficit spending and the botched rollout of ObamaCare have forced many Americans to begin paying closer attention to Obama's lawyerly lingo.

The latest "redistributive" revelation has to do with the FCC's plan to move the national communications spectrum from broadcast to wireless broadband networks. Former FCC chair Mark S. Fowler explained this recently in the January 24 Wall Street Journal: "For the past five years, the Federal Communications Commission has cheered wireless broadband as the future of communications. But television broadcasters have much of the spectrum that wireless companies want. So the FCC has intervened to reassign chunks of spectrum from one group to another -- and its broadband bias comes at the expense of broadcasters."

So why does this matter? First of all, it matters because the communications spectrum is like the air we breathe. Indeed, it has now become the life's breath of commerce worldwide. Like the air we breathe, the spectrum is invisible. Technically, it is "the electronic airspace on which almost every modern device relies."

Back in the days of all-analog copper-wire telephony and broadcast radio/TV transmission, there was little concern about the risk of a spectrum shortage. The rapid development of microchip circuitry, digitized data, fiber-optic cable, satellite links, the Internet and -- especially -- wireless broadband networks has changed everything. In less than ten years, the communications spectrum has been commoditized. That means Uncle Sam is very interested. To understand why the federal government cares, it's helpful to look at what has happened to the "electronic airways" in Australia.

Writing in the November 22, 2012 issue of The Australian Financial Review, David Ramli points out that, "...while some spectrum bands are worth little more than the application fee, others are used by telecommunications and media companies to provide lucrative services like television and mobile broadband." Specifically, Ramli says, "The 700Mhz [or 4G] band is the most valuable of all because companies using it find their signals go deeper into buildings and travel further [sic] away than almost any other available option." He adds that, "To prevent these [wireless broadband] signals from blocking each other, the Australian Communications and Media Authority acts as the regulator and assigns exact frequencies to certain services."

Like our own FCC, the Australian Communications and Media Authority is interested in much more than playing spectrum traffic cop. As Ramli observed in 2012, "Ultimately the success of Australia's telcos, the quality of all mobile services and perhaps the fate of Labor's plan for a budget surplus will all be decided in April 2013, when the various stakeholders will be locked in rooms with analysts, auction computers and billions of dollars to spend."

Apparently, though, Australia's spectrum "redistribution" plans didn't work out. A November 26, 2013 report posted by Rodney S. Tucker, electrical engineering professor at the University of Melbourne, mourned the failure of this $44 billion National Broadband Network project: "Sadly, the new Coalition government seems impervious to these arguments and is determined to downscale the NBN. I am left clinging to the hope that Australians will realize the foolishness of abandoning the FTTP network and insist that their leaders reconsider or devise a new plan that's not too far removed from the Labor Party's revolutionary vision."

What else is new? Progressives populate the big university faculties and government advisory panels in Australia much as they do here, but the Aussie electorate must have had enough of the Labor Party last fall and voted them out of office. So ends Australia's plans for a NBN, for now anyway.

The push for universal broadband here in the United States is still at fever pitch, however. "The FCC's preoccupation with wireless broadband," Fowler claims, "has pushed aside any other use for the spectrum. But the agency's seeming indifference to TV broadcasting overlooks this medium's efficiency. Broadcasting uses a point-to-multipoint architecture, meaning a high-power TV signal is transmitted from one tower and received by many receivers. The service area can span hundreds of square miles."

Wireless broadband (or cellular) service, though, depends on a point-to-point architecture. In other words, communication is possible only between one person or location and another. It requires the use of many small antenna sites, each equipped with a low-power transmitter covering a very small area. If one cell tower fails or is overwhelmed by local traffic, as in the case of a bomb threat in a crowded stadium, broadband is useless. "Should one TV broadcasting station fail, however, many others can provide further advisories in an emergency." It is these levels of efficiency and reliability, Fowler explains, that "kept more than eight million people safe and informed during Hurricane Sandy. Broadband can't do that."

People who live and work in densely populated urban areas like Chicago and Los Angeles where wireless broadband is ubiquitous have no clue about the plight of those in hinterland regions like Wyoming and Nebraska where cell towers are few and far between. Even in the older residential neighborhoods of large American cities, you're likely to see many rooftops mounted by the old-fashioned horizontal analog TV antennas. That's what Fowler is referring to when he says, "The turn in FCC policy against broadcasting also discounts the growing audiences for free over-the-air TV... FCC rhetoric of 'all broadband, all the time,' doesn't reflect public interest when it comes to licensed spectrum."

Fowler is not an all-or-nothing broadcast advocate, however. As he explains, "Wireless broadband is a vital service that has transformed the world of communication. But it's not the only service. Broadcasting remains the primary source of news and information for more than 300 million Americans, and the go-to source when disaster strikes. The two are complementary: Broadband is for personalization; broadcasting is for coverage."

In a more perfect world where free enterprise and government transparency prevail, it should be possible to, as Fowler puts it, "enable a broadcast or cellular licensee to share existing spectrum dynamically when not using it." Sadly, though, we now live in a world where political cronyism corrupts everything.

AT writer Anthony Kang probed the depths of this problem way back in July of 2010, asking the loaded question: "...when hedge-fund managers donate almost exclusively to Democrats,... and corporate goliaths in bed with Big Government such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon are as giddy over Net Neutrality as Big PhRMA was over ObamaCare, how do liberals continue getting away with the lie that they are the ones against Big Business?"

Kang also cited a July 13, 2010 article in The American Spectator, where Mark Hyman calls out the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which is designed to end local television broadcasters' use of the electronic spectrum... to deliver free, over the air television." The ultimate goal here is to "move the nation's 1600 TV stations to subscription only platforms such as cable."

Fast-forward to Valentine's Day 2014 when the lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal reported on the recent plans for a Comcast/Time Warner merger: "Comcast has... already agreed through an earlier merger negotiation to accept the FCC's 'net neutrality' rules, which limit a company's ability to set different terms for different customers. The FCC tried to impose these rules on the whole industry, but they were recently and wisely tossed out by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals." Nevertheless, this report concludes with the usual Journal editorial bow to the almighty dollar: "Neither the FCC nor the Justice Department has any clue who is going to win, so the best way is to let companies and private investors fight it out."

So much for the "wisdom" of the D.C. Circuit Court!

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