In January, the Obama administration arrived in Washington, guns blazing and ready to fight for an $825 billion economic stimulus package. A little bit of everything was thrown in the pot (along with some pork flavoring), including tax cuts, transfers to state coffers and infrastructure spending.

Of the $825 billion, $6 billion was earmarked to stimulate broadband deployment, including grants for open access infrastructure projects that primarily target rural areas, a state broadband data and development program and wireless and broadband grants to be administered by the NTIA.

Some said the $6 billion wasn’t enough. Bloomberg reported that certain Democratic lawmakers had asked for triple. Yet, the same article noted that critics didn’t think wiring could be laid fast enough to provide economic stimulus.

A broadband beginning?

While the stimulus package didn’t address a comprehensive national broadband policy, either, supporters of such an initiative remain encouraged by statements President Obama has made, both on the campaign trail and since taking office.

He has spoken a number of times of bridging the digital divide in this country, even quoting statistics that rank the United States 15th in broadband adoption per capita.

And in his first radio address as president, he reiterated his intent to "rebuild and retrofit America to meet the demands of the 21st century," which among other things, "means expanding broadband access to millions of Americans."

Late last year, a group calling itself the U.S. Broadband Coalition released a call to action outlining a policy framework for a national broadband strategy.

"A good reason why we did a call to action and why we are doing all of this is that we think that the administration is right to see broadband as an important item," said Jim Baller of the Baller Herbst Law Group.

"What we are trying to do is develop as much agreement of what the components of a national strategy are and how they should be addressed," Baller added.

Comprising tech companies, service providers, government entities, public interest groups and industry associations, the coalition has formed six working groups to further hash out the issues. While the signatories have agreed on overarching goals, the details are still sometimes contentious.

Take net neutrality as an example, which involves disagreement over the right of network providers to manage systems versus the concept of openness. "If you look at the first two goals of our call to action statement, both sides of that debate are reflected," Baller said. "While these issues are in conflict and require more debate, until we find a specific way to achieve the goals, at least we’ve (come) together as to what the issues are."

Free market solution

There are those, however, who would argue whether consensus has been reached regarding the necessity of a national broadband strategy.

"To say that somehow we are falling behind and we have to desperately (be) doing something obscures the issue and guarantees that whatever comes next in terms of policy proposal will not be well crafted," said Thomas Hazlett, professor of law and economics at George Mason University and former FCC chief economist.

To Hazlett, competition is the stimulus for continuing the "vibrant development" of broadband in the United States. "If you want to do it through implicit subsidies, (you) will be stuck with a monopoly; you won’t get the vibrancy and entrepreneurial(ism) forced by competition," he said, noting that the FCC should loosen up on wireless regulation.

White-hot spectrum

The FCC, in fact, in November ruled to allow the unlicensed use of so-called television white spaces, the spectrum between broadcast TV channels. That space will increase once analog broadcast signals are dropped. (At this writing, it remains unclear whether that will occur in February, as originally planned, or June.) Some, including former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, have speculated that opening this spectrum will lead to "Wi-Fi on steroids."

"Just as Wi-Fi sparked a revolution in the way we connect to the Web, freeing the white space airwaves will help unleash a new wave of technological innovation, create jobs and boost our economy," a Google spokesman said.

The use of these white spaces has also been touted as a vehicle for bridging the digital divide. "The increase(d) capacity of the spectrum will enable broadband signals to be carried wirelessly into un(der)served communities, often rural ones, that are ignored by larger broadband providers because the cost of laying the last mile is too expensive," said Jake Ward, spokesman for the Wireless Innovation Alliance, a consortium that supports the use of TV white spaces.

Hazlett said that while the potential is there, the FCC’s ruling will "push any useful deployment out another 50 to 70 years." He said, "The way licensed TV stations have been spread out across the spectrum is inefficient, and the decision does not change this."

"You need somebody to basically reorganize the TV band and move the TV stations in the spectrum space," Hazlett added. He does not believe this will occur because the FCC chose to go unlicensed. Ownership of the spectrum would provide incentive to push the TV stations to shift.

Hazlett pointed to Qualcomm, which purchased analog Ch. 55 in an auction. "(Qualcomm) paid TV stations to accept interference with its service MediaFlo," he said. In some cases, the TV stations took new channel assignments. "That is what you want to happen over the entire TV band."

Cable’s concerns

Hazlett is not the only one thinking that the FCC’s ruling on white spaces is problematic.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association expressed concerns throughout this multiple year FCC proceeding. One of the NCTA’s basic points is that, unlike terrestrial broadcasting, cable TV systems have no equivalent vacant or white spaces in their channel lineups. That means that white spaces devices – or TV band devices (TVBDs) – operating close enough to a subscriber’s TV set could pose a risk to any channel through direct pickup (DPU) interference.

The FCC has set a 100mW maximum power output for portable devices. According to the NCTA, however, both the FCC’s own laboratory and NCTA’s technical analyses have found harmful interference as a low as 4.3mW, at a distance of 2 meters.

The FCC ruling allowed fixed devices to operate at a much higher output. "TVBD(s) of the fixed facility type will be limited to 4 watts effective isotropic radiated power," wrote television broadcast technologies consultant Charlie Rhodes in a December column for TV Technology.

More power means greater distance – and the potential for what Rhodes called a "black hole" for terrestrial DTV signals surrounding a fixed-facility TVBD.

Apart from DPU interference in the home, the NCTA is also concerned about broadcast signals, flagging the potential for interference at rural headends.

The FCC did build a number of safeguards into its rules, including the use of spectrum-sensing technology and geolocation capability. But the NCTA is concerned about certain exceptions.

"With respect to rural areas, the Commission’s November ruling also authorized a class of white spaces devices to operate up to 50mW of output power without accessing any database of information that would otherwise allow these devices to operate without causing interference into a cable headend," said Bill Check, NCTA senior vice president for science and technology.

Vendor pushback

At least one potential vendor of white spaces devices is balking at that limit on output power.

Prior to making its decision, the FCC had its lab conduct tests to determine the viability of the spectrum-sensing and transmitting functions. One of the companies that submitted a prototype was startup Adaptrum.

The FCC would approve devices using only spectrum-sensing technology. These devices would not have to meet geolocating or database requirements, but would be subject to tougher scrutiny. (See section 15.717 of the FCC’s ruling.)

Michael Marcus, president Marcus Spectrum Solutions and consultant to Adaptrum, explained that the devices first would have to "demonstrate unambiguously that (they) don’t cause interference."

In addition, the FCC will conduct field tests and open its findings to public notice. If approved, these devices would fall into the class limited to 50mW. To Marcus, that seems unreasonable.

"By definition, the tests show unambiguously that you don’t cause interference," Marcus said. "Why should there be a limit?"

Adaptrum hasn’t firmed up its business model yet, but has applied for an FCC experimental license and is testing improved designs. Marcus described the device as the functional equivalent to a Wi-Fi card. "It would connect to a computer. When the computer has data to send, it gives it to the device. The device searches for a vacant frequency, picks it and sends the data out on it."

Monta Monaco Hernon is a contributor to Communications Technology.

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