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Save the White Spaces! From Public Knowledge

The FCC is now contemplating how much newly freed spectrum to retain for public use and how much to auction off to private companies for their exclusive use. Public Knowledge is leading the effort to ensure we retain enough shared spectrum to unleash more innovation and public benefits rather than simply padding the profits of a few massive firms that already control plenty of it.

In addition to the Gigabit Libraries Network's White Spaces Pilot Project, we have shared white space technology stories from North Carolina and New York

Public Knowledge recently created a video on the prevalence of spectrum in our lives, included below. Most of us take for granted the fact that shared (or unlicensed) spectrum permeates our culture. 

Instead of sitting by while the resource is auctioned off to the highest bidder, Public Knowledge has also created a petition to retain the spectrum needed for white space technology to spur more innovation. From the petition:

One of the most promising new technologies uses the empty spaces between television channels, the so-called "TV white spaces" (TVWS). The United States currently leads the world in this new technology. In the few short years since the FCC approved use of the TVWS, companies have built and shipped equipment to bring needed broadband to rural communities, creating jobs and expanding opportunities.

...

We call on the FCC to set aside 4 reclaimed TV channels, or 24 MHz, for TV white spaces. This will still leave the FCC more than enough to auction to wireless companies for their commercial needs. By reserving 24 MHz of "unlicensed" spectrum across the country for TV white spaces, the FCC will encourage further innovation in wireless services and foster the growth of next generation WiFi contributing billions of dollars in new products and consumer savings.

Video: 
See video

Solar Powered Wireless on the Reservation - Community Broadband Bits Episode #76

When it comes to building a community owned wireless network, few have more experience than Matthew Rantanen, our guest for the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week. Rantanen has an impressive list of titles, two of which are Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association (SCTCA) and Director of the Tribal Digital Village Initiative.

We discuss the need for better network access on reservations generally and how several reservations in southern California were able to build their own wireless networks using unlicensed spectrum and the power of the sun. This success has inspired others, including in Idaho, to take similar approaches to ensure modern connectivity.

We also discuss the importance of unlicensed spectrum to ensure that underserved communities can build the networks they need without having to ask for permission and the role that Native Public Media plays in expanding access to media across North America.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 16 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Wireless Internet Access Fact Sheet

Wireless networks have been incredibly successful, from home Wi-Fi networks to the billions of mobile devices in use across the planet. So successful, in fact, that some have come to believe we no longer need wires.

We developed this fact sheet to clarify some misconceptions about what wireless Internet networks are capable of and the importance of fiber optic cables in building better wireless networks as our bandwidth needs continue to increase.

This fact sheet defines important terms, offers some key points clarifying common misconceptions, compares 4G and 3G wireless to wired cable, and more. We also include references to additional resources for those who want to dig deeper.

Download our Wireless Internet 101 Fact Sheet Here [pdf].

If you want updates about stories relating to community Internet networks, we send out one email each week with recent stories we covered here at MuniNetworks.org. Sign up here.

Dewayne Hendricks Explains the Forgotton National Information Infrastructure - Community Broadband Bits #34

Have you heard of the National Information Infrastructure, or the NII? Most of us either haven't, or have forgotten we once knew what it could be. Dewayne Hendricks joins us to remind us what it was and why we should care. It's "kind of a big thing." Since we conducted this interview, unlicensed spectrum issues became a hot topic; listen below to get a better sense of just how important this issue is.

In our discussion, Dewayne walks us through the original vision, one that now seems fanciful: a world of mobile devices that interconnect with each other on the wireless networks that surround us. While we do have wireless networks in most places, they are often controlled by a few companies, like Verizon and AT&T, that restrict how we can use them and how our devices can talk to each other.

But the NII was to be more decentralized, creating much more space for entreprenuers and innovators to create new business models. A few massive corporations were able to change that vision, creating a lucrative role for themselves as gatekeepers along the way.

Dewayne started this conversation by recommending a 1995 filing by Apple [pdf]. Whether you read it before or after our conversation, it is worth taking a look.

Dewayne has previously joined us to discuss wireless generally and then later to talk about the wired vs. wireless debate. A previous interview with Bruce Kushnick is also referenced over the course of this interview.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Hey FCC: Time to Expand Unlicensed Spectrum!

Remember that Washington Post story about bigger, free Wi-Fi networks? It went hugely viral with all manner of outlets picking the story up, unintentionally distorting it, and amplifying it.

Some good has come of it. For one thing, I was reminded that Ars Technica does a really good job of tech reporting, better than anyone else in my estimation. Cecilia Kang offered a follow-up story to clarify the original that should help more people to understand what is at stake.

But more importantly, we saw a lot of media coverage about something really important, whether we allocate future spectrum for everyone to use (much like Wi-Fi) or will we reserve it just for AT&T, Verizon, or another big corporation?

Harold Feld has a strong opinion on the matter:

This past week, we’ve had quite the discussion around Cecilia Kang’s WashPo piece describing a plan by the FCC to create a national WiFi network by making the right decisions about how to allocate spectrum between licenses for auction and what to leave available for the unlicensed TV white spaces (“TVWS” aka “Super WiFi” aka “Wifi on steroids”). As Kang describes, the FCC’s opening of sufficient spectrum for TVWS could lead to “super WiFi networks (emphasis added) around the nation so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.”

Needless to say, the article faced much pushback, despite a subsequent Washpo clarification to indicate the FCC was not, actually, planing to build a network. Amidst the various critics, there were some general defenders of the concept. My colleagues at EFF noted that increasing the availability of open spectrum for WiFi-type uses , and my friends at Free Press argued that such a free public wifi network (or, more accurately, series of networks) is in fact possible if the FCC makes enough good quality spectrum, suitable for broadband and usable out doors, available on an unlicensed basis.

I will now go a step further than any of my colleagues. I will boldly state that, if the FCC produces a solid 20 MHz of contiguous empty space for TV White spaces in the Incentive Auction proceeding, or even two 10 MHz guard channels that could nationally produce two decent sized LTE-for unlicensed channels, then we will have exactly the kind of free publicly available wifi Kang describes in her article. Or, “Yes Cecilia, there really is free national public wifi. Don’t let the haters and know-it-alls tell you otherwise.” ...

MAG-Net Logo

I wrote a much shorter, far less impressive piece for the Media Action Grassroots Network that embraces a similar argument:

You know how you can buy a simple little device for as little as $30 now to set up your own Wi-Fi network that creates an easy in-home network? Imagine if your neighborhood could do that too!

Wi-Fi works in your home because the federal government, which manages how the public airwaves are divided for various uses, decreed that a small slice of spectrum would be unlicensed - sitting there for anyone to use however they wanted. But that spectrum is not suited for a neighborhood-wide network. ...

And we have seen others take notice as well, including the Baltimore Sun Editorial Staff:

The companies who oppose the FCC's plan argue that the agency's mission to serve the public interest would best be achieved through the revenues from an auction of the airwaves. The last such auction, in 2008, generated nearly $20 billion for the government. That's a substantial amount of money, to be sure, but the relatively small portion of the spectrum that the commission now proposes to leave open to unlicensed use would be worth only a fraction of that — a pittance compared to the economic activity that could be generated through the creation of new products and services to take advantage of the unlicensed spectrum.

FCC Logo

Therein lies the danger. The big wireless lobbyists are pushing Congress and the FCC hard to ensure that they get the licenses. Republicans in particular are arguing that we need the billions (perhaps 3-5?) of dollars that an auction would fetch for the treasury. This would be a terrible tradeoff.

I doubt that anyone has a handle on the value of Wi-Fi, but it is orders of magnitude higher than a onetime infusion of a few billion dollars. How much would you pay any given day to use Wi-Fi? Multiply that by over 200 million people. And this new spectrum could allow bigger networks than Wi-Fi supports -- an even greater potential value!

Verizon and AT&T know this, of course. They will gladly spend billions to ensure that we are stuck paying far more for services from them than we can build for ourselves if only we are allowed to use our spectrum to do so.

Write your elected representatives to support increased unlicensed spectrum.

Don't Sell the Public Airwaves to the Highest Corporate Bidder

During the recent budget negotiations, one plan called for taking valuable wireless spectrum that is intended to be used as a commons and auctioning it off the massive corporations to monopolize. Rather than enabling a whole new generation of wireless technologies that would create countless jobs and ongoing opportunities for innovation (some have described it as Wi-Fi on steroids), it would have created a one-time cash infusion while further consolidating the incomparable market power of AT&T and Verizon. Preserving as much spectrum as possible as unlicensed commons allows communities, small businesses, and activists to build the wireless networks they need because they cannot afford to license spectrum for their sole use.

Wally Bowen wrote the following op-ed urging a more sensible approach. Fortunately, the spectrum auction was dropped from the plan - but it will undoubtedly come up again. This was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on July 31 and is reprinted here with permission.

U.S. House Republicans are pushing a proposal to sell off some of the nation's most valuable real estate as part of a debt-ceiling deal, apparently unaware of the harm it will do our economy.

This real estate is a portion of the public airwaves so valuable that it's been called the "Malibu beachfront" of the electromagnetic spectrum. This lower-frequency spectrum, previously reserved for broadcast radio and TV, is far superior to "Wi-Fi" frequencies used for Internet access - and for innovative devices ranging from microwave ovens and cordless phones to garage-door openers and baby monitors.

This prime spectrum can deliver broadband speeds that support high-definition video for telemedicine in rural and other underserved areas. This spectrum is especially plentiful in rural America, and could help connect millions of low-income citizens to affordable broadband services. It could also spark a new wave of high-tech innovation and job-creation far greater than the Wi-Fi boom of the last 25 years.

Wi-Fi Logo

The genius behind the first wave of Wi-Fi innovation was unlicensed spectrum. Though these higher frequencies were once considered "junk bands" by radio engineers, designating them for unlicensed access gave innovators the freedom to experiment. It also gave investors incentive to take risks in launching new products.

Unfortunately, the GOP-backed plan would gut the huge market potential of this high-octane spectrum by selling it to the highest bidders: incumbent carriers more interested in shutting-out competition than in igniting the next great high-tech boom. Once auctioned, the spectrum would be licensed, creating enormous barriers-to-entry and disincentives for innovators, entrepreneurs and investors.

Oddly, House members pushing this auction plan - inappropriately called the "Spectrum Innovation Act" - acknowledge unlicensed spectrum's market advantage. But their mechanism for providing unlicensed spectrum is bizarre.

The bill would allow companies - and presumably the public - to place bids for this spectrum either as licensed or unlicensed. This never-before-tried auction would then pit the highest bid for licensed spectrum against the sum of all bids for unlicensed use. If the latter exceeds the former, the U.S. Treasury would reap the proceeds and the nation's economy would reap the rewards of the next unlicensed Wi-Fi boom.

But common sense should red-flag this auction scheme as unworkable. Even if companies and concerned citizens attempted to coordinate bids for unlicensed use, laws against collusion would have to be set aside. And why would smaller firms risk their money if they can assume larger firms like Google and Microsoft will do the heavy-lifting? Clearly, this proposed auction scheme is cover for a cynical spectrum-grab that would rob us and future generations of this prime electromagnetic real estate.

Let's hope lawmakers come to their senses quickly and dismiss the lobbyists pushing this self-serving scheme.

The amazing array of wireless devices developed over the past 25 years proves that unlicensed spectrum attracts investment, spurs innovation and unleashes the power of competitive markets. Unlicense this next-gen spectrum and let the innovators and job-creators get to work.

Preserve Unlicensed Spectrum - White Spaces At Risk

If the future is wireless, we have to preserve unlicensed spaces. To explain: most wireless stuff uses licensed spectrum - where only a single entity has permission from the FCC to use a specific wavelength of spectrum. While this is great for those who can afford to license spectrum (companies like AT&T and Verizon), it is not particularly efficient because the rest of us cannot use those wavelengths even if AT&T and Verizon aren't (which is particularly a problem in rural areas).

Contrast that approach with Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed spectrum. There are portions of spectrum where the FCC has said anyone can do anything. This is why we do not need permission to set up wireless networks in our house.

Last year, the FCC made a great decision to make "white spaces" wireless technology unlicensed -- which will allow more of us (again particularly in rural areas) to use white spaces without having to get permission. Because this decision creates a larger potential market, we would have more manufacturers interested in creating gear -- meaning more innovation and a lower cost to establish wireless networks (that are far more powerful than Wi-Fi allows).

But now Congress is considering reversing that decision and licensing that spectrum to generate a few billion dollars of one-time revenue for the government -- at a cost of far more than billions of dollars of lost opportunities, particularly in rural America where these unlicensed white spaces are the only real opportunity to rapidly deliver broadband in the short term.

In short, keeping these white spaces unlicensed will be far better for rural economies, innovation, and productivity than a one-time infusion of cash into the federal government.

These decisions are going to made shortly, so I encourage everyone to check out Public Knowledge's Action Alert calling on us to contact our members of Congress to oppose this approach.

AT&T Stumbles in Purchase of "Grassroots" Support

Public interest advocates in the telecom arena have long been frustrated with a parade of large, powerful non-profit organizations blindly supporting the positions of powerful telecom companies that just happen to make large donations to those non-profits.

A story this week confirmed the worst of our suppositions: these groups often have little idea of what they are supporting. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation seemed pretty enthused about the AT&T T-Mobile takeover a few weeks ago. Odd for GLAAD to be excited about its constituency paying higher prices for wireless services, but whatever.

Until a few days ago, when we got a look behind the scenes -- AT&T wrote their statement and it was simply signed by the organization's President -- who apparently had no idea what it was about. But he knew that AT&T gives big money to the org. He has since resigned.

Around the time that we learned of the GLAAD shenanigans, we learned how super excited Cattle Ranchers are for the AT&T takeover of T-Mobile. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this merger will do anything for rural residents but increase the prices they pay. There is no shortage of spectrum in rural areas so T-Mobile offers nothing AT&T cannot do on its own.

And while the Cattle Ranchers are clamoring for higher monthly prices from AT&T, the single best hope for rapidly expanding wireless broadband access in rural areas - the unlicensed white spaces - is being quietly killed. Ironic, ain't it?

I have long supported the efforts of the Media Action Grassroots, which works to organize and educate people about essential issues in telecom and media. They work with real people and represent real people's interests all the time, not just when it doesn't conflict with a big donor. We need to support organizations that support our values, particularly when it is inconvenient to do so.

Update: More of the media is finally starting to take notice of the obvious: eWeek.