How To Get Spectrum Back From TV For More Useful Purposes

from the property-rights? dept

If you look at how our radio spectrum is allocated today, you discover that TV broadcasters have a huge chunk of spectrum (that chart doesn’t directly display how much spectrum is actually included — I remember seeing another chart, which I can’t find now, that shows proportionally how much more spectrum broadcasters have). This was given to them — entirely for free — years ago, when spectrum wasn’t used for much. These days, however, spectrum is precious for so many different things, and certainly much of it could be put to better use. Of course, the broadcasters aren’t thrilled with giving up any of their windfall. For years, they dragged their feet, kicking and screaming, about switching from analog to digital broadcasting, which was needed to reclaim some spectrum. More recently, they’ve been fighting attempts to use “white space” spectrum — which is spectrum that’s unused, but close to used spectrum. The broadcasters insist there will be interference, while technologists insist the technology is good enough to block interference.

So, it’s interesting that, just as we’re hearing of the first tests of white space networks, the FCC is also talking to broadcasters about other ways to reclaim some spectrum and put it to use on something more useful and productive. Apparently, the plan on the table right now would be for broadcasters to give up the spectrum in return for a cut of the revenue the government would get in auctioning off the spectrum for wireless use. Of course, some may find it distasteful that public spectrum that was given to these companies for free can then get sold off with at least some of the money going to those who never bought or truly “owned” the spectrum in the first place. But, given that the FCC set things up in a way where it basically created a de facto ownership structure of the spectrum, it’s difficult to see any reasonable way to get that spectrum back without paying for it.

In the link above, Adam Thierer suggests we just give the current holders property rights in the spectrum, and assume that they’ll then sell it off to those who can do something more innovative with it (or change and do something more innovative themselves). I’ve long been a proponent of giving up the ridiculous idea of having the government decide how each slice of spectrum must be used. Why not let the companies who control the various slices of spectrum make use of it as they see fit? It seems more likely that we’d get more efficient uses of the spectrum. So, it’s good to see more thinking about ways to put some of that spectrum to better use, but it would be nice if we allowed the market, rather than the government, to figure out how to best use it.

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Comments on “How To Get Spectrum Back From TV For More Useful Purposes”

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Matt (profile) says:

Radio free anarchy

The trouble is the market may not be any better at forecasting the best use of spectrum, because the price of spectrum-qua-property will not be set according to social utility, but according to commercializability. And giving someone property rights in the commons seems like bad mojo (and something I’m surprised to see you advocate).

An alternative would be to simply do away with spectrum regulation altogether. Make it legal to broadcast whatever you want however you want. This has been proposed in the past by better thinkers than me… The general thought appears to be that institutions will necessarily emerge to resolve the mythical problem of scarcity, and avoid interference.

Richard (profile) says:


Low frequency spectrum is a scarce good and probably needs some kind of regulation/ownership. High frequency spectrum is rather different. There is a lot more of it (its pretty much infinite at the top end) but it tends to be restricted by line of sight and range may also be limited. Deregulation of the top end therefore makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’d rather the government seize it. Corporations make horrible decisions and would turn it over to the highest bidder which is not necessarily the best use.

Let the broadcasters pay a fee to use it. They can get that fee waived by allowing 75% of the content broadcast over public airwaves to enter into the public domain immediately, and 100% on a reduced schedule. If not, they can develop their own way to distribute it.

Anonymous Coward says:

why does anyone have to own it?

It seems to me it could just be left open for anyone’s use, and rather than broadcasters/service providers taking charge of how and when and at what cost people can use it for networking, you can just have hardware manufacturers figure out ways to find available frequencies, minimize interference, and allow the actual use of the data carriage to be controlled on the client side via the hardware. Sort of a white space darknet, if you will. You’ve got the hardware, you’ve got the connectivity, and if you can figure out how to make it function then it’s all yours.

No “plans,” no pricing tiers, no arbitrary limits. Nobody gets paid except the hardware providers (and they only get paid the once). Users wouldn’t have to be tethered to an ongoing service contract, nobody gets to claim ownership of the data stream between the end user and backbone, so nobody has the authority to inspect packets in transit. Sounds like a win for everyone.

James (profile) says:


The Gov are the only ones who have the power to decide what can be in each slice. Standard drive down prices by enabling competition and reducing complexity of receivers/transmitters.

I can see why you think the market should decide what all spectrum is used for, but that will just result in lost rev for the gov and all bandwidth being assigned to the most profitable use, Who is going to leave the free open parts along – like my radio control cars use?

Mobile phone would not have taken off as well unless they were ALL forced to use the same frequency ranges for a country (mainly just 4 close slices across the globe). Imagine how much each phone would have been if they had to work across a much wider range of frequencies or if there had to be one phone for each frequency range used. It took ages before even dual band phones came out, let lone quad and above receivers.

As for A Free for All. Year great some kid with a broadcaster can then wipe out any coms systems from military to cell phones legally — battle of who has the strongest transmitter.

In the UK the regulator is switching off the analogy spectrum, squeezing the digital spectrum and then leasing out any spare to whoever pays the most and if they don’t use it they can take it back.

Some things you just need big gov to handle and spectrum is one of them.

Matt (profile) says:

Re: It NEEDS to be OWNED by GOV

Yes, you have the potential for interference. That already exists – it is the Mexican Radio problem. At the moment, we deal with it in two ways: (1) limiting transmission power in specific frequencies; and (2) limiting which frequencies can be used by specific technologies. One of those is plenty – we can dump the second, and still have pretty good avoidance.

In any event, there is no reason to believe that crafty engineers will fail to find ways to avoid interference. There is no doubt that technology will look different from how it now looks, but that isn’t a bad thing. Companies, even Tyco, do not need the government to tell them how to avoid conflict as between one another – they will work that out for themselves.

Comboman (profile) says:

A few points

1) The spectrum chart is logarithmic, not linear. Broadcasting looks like it takes up a lot of the spectrum, but it’s mostly at the low frequency end which is “stretched out”.

2) The invisible hand of the market doesn’t understand physics. For example, certain frequencies are absorbed by clouds which make them useless for satellite/long-range communications but are OK for other purposes.

3) If the market decides frequency allocation, what happens to applications that don’t produce money but still need dedicated frequencies (emergency services, navigation, meteorology, radio astronomy, military, amateur radio, etc.)?

4) Each country decides it’s frequency allocations, but radio doesn’t recognize borders. Allocations need to be coordinated with other countries. How is this possible with “the market” making constant, random changes?

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: A few points

Agree with you on 2-4, and even 1. But on 1, I would comment back that although the lower end has less capacity (fewer Hz) and is “stretched out” it ALSO contains the spectrum where range is suitable for long-range communications.

It seems that you probably know this, but for the benefit of the others: even with the limitations you describe, low frequency (where TV lives) is the most desired spectrum.

James (user link) says:

Re: A few points

(1) The low end is rightly “stretched out” given that it’s so much more useful for most of our radio spectrum needs. This is a silly objection. Broadcast takes up a substantial chunk of the most scarce spectrum, which is what this issue is all about.

2) Yes “it” does. It needs to in order to make money. The actors that don’t go out of business. That’s basic economics. If you’re not on board with this, why are you reading Tech Dirt?

3) A valid concern–I agree. There definitely needs to be some sort of balance. But the current system is also off the mark.

4) If anything, this is just reason to pressure other countries to adopt similarly efficient policies. Market actors do not have incentive to engage in ‘constant’ change, and the outcome will certainly not be random.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

hmmmm .....

“but it would be nice if we allowed the market, rather than the government, to figure out how to best use it.” …

Oh no you are one of those pesky Innovation types!!! you must be squashed!! You must be raked over hot coals!! Innovation is bad! dont you see that? it leads to disruptive technologies that kill off entrenched corporations. We cant allow that, we will lobby against any attempt at innovation.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Giving the spectrum to private companies

Never took history (or didn’t listen), huh?
We tried private highways. We tried private water companies. We tried private management of shipping. We tried private unregulated railroads. Total disasters, until we took these things into the public domain (regulation).
But obviously we didn’t learn anything, because now we are considering leaving the spectrum to private companies?

Einstein was right; “the only things that are infinite are the universe and human stupidity – and I am not sure about the universe”.

Matt (profile) says:

Re: Giving the spectrum to private companies

Public domain is the opposite of government regulation. If something is in the public domain, any member of the public can do whatever they want with it.

We still have private highways, and they work. Always have. Shipping is still privately managed, at least where I live. Railroads are only public because it turns out they are not sufficiently good for the public in peacetime for private parties to pay what a ticket should cost (but having the capacity is useful in case of domestic invasion, same as public highways).

The government should be in the business of investing in public goods (ie, things that private individuals will not invest in sufficiently if left to their own devices, like cops,) and forcing individuals to internalize externalities of their conduct (ie, tort law and environmental regulation). Spectrum is not a public good – it is already freely available. Spectrum uses are not public goods – they are profitable, and people will invest in them sufficiently for them to develop. There is still a regulatory role for government in dealing with spectrum – it should force actors to internalize the external effects of their conduct – but it can fill that role without regulating uses of spectrum. It should do so.

The spectrum scarcity argument is a myth, and it is the basis for some truly bad law.

Anonymous Coward says:


But, given that the FCC set things up in a way where it basically created a de facto ownership structure of the spectrum…

Um, no, they didn’t. The spectrum is only licensed and the FCC has the authority to revoke the licenses.

…it’s difficult to see any reasonable way to get that spectrum back without paying for it.

Simple, just pull the licenses. There’s absolutely no reason the public should have to buy back something they already own. To do so would just be raping the public for the benefit of the wealthy, again.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Don't Agree

I don’t agree. I think we need some agency to manage the spectrum, how it is used, to capture public value leased to enterprise, and to prevent interference. (I don’t need them to censor nipples and swear words).

We need to consider the issue of harmonization. That is, using spectrum in similar ways in different regions. If my cellular provider in CA uses 1900MHz, but yours in Nevada uses 450MHz, then my phone becomes unable to roam. Or, you bring your 1900MHz walkie talkie to CA and screw up my cellular network. The potential for interference is immense. Currently, different nations tend to try to harmonize spectrum allowing equipment makers can address multiple markets with their products. With a spectrum free-for-all, the world loses global economies of scale in radio devices. Prices go up, and innovation slows down.

Lots of comments here that “spectrum scarcity is a myth.” Please explain. Most of the explanations I hear for this rely on very modern, or upcoming scientific advancements (ex: UWB). These need to be proven before we dump the existing system. I would say these are more at the “myth” stage than the scarcity argument. I agree, technology will eventually revolutionize the way we should handle spectrum…but not yet.

We currently have radio systems functioning along most of the frequency chart. If any new system did cause interference, it would render much of the existing equipment useless. That’s a fairly big risk, and one that should be undertaken only after significant proof that the new radios will “do no harm”.

How about this: instead of pie-in-the-sky arguments for the FCC to be abolished and a spectrum free-for-all, why not make far more rational arguments for some “sandbox” spectrum in which to trial, develop, and prove these ‘interference obviating’ technologies? If they work, we transition over to them gradually, in an organized fashion.

There are a lot of vested interests working to prevent change here, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean that chaos is the better option.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Don't Agree

Lots of comments here that “spectrum scarcity is a myth.” Please explain. Most of the explanations I hear for this rely on very modern, or upcoming scientific advancements (ex: UWB). These need to be proven before we dump the existing system.

I’m an electical engineer specializing in communications. As far as I’m concerned, UWB has been proven, technically. If you’re qualified and understand it, you can google all the relevant technical papers yourself. There are a ton of them. What it has not been is accepted, politically.

I agree, technology will eventually revolutionize the way we should handle spectrum…but not yet.

But because of political limitations, not technical ones.

How about this: instead of pie-in-the-sky arguments for the FCC to be abolished and a spectrum free-for-all, why not make far more rational arguments for some “sandbox” spectrum in which to trial, develop, and prove these ‘interference obviating’ technologies? If they work, we transition over to them gradually, in an organized fashion.

I can tell you’re not an engineer. That’s OK, but let me just say that UWB, by it’s very nature, isn’t spectrum sandbox-able. It also, by it’s very nature, tends not to interfere with spectrum defined methods. It does, however, present a competitive threat to various spectrum license holders and their industries, some of whom have great political influence.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Don't Agree

You are clearly more technical than I. However, you are limiting your thinking to UWB. How about taking it a level above what Tesla could do over 100 years ago?

Just because existing UWB technology is so wide-spectrum doesn’t mean other clever engineers won’t find ways to contain it, or come up with an alternative that CAN behave in a sandbox.

Until that time, why should existing spectrum users be put at risk by a new technology that just claims not to interfere, but for which the proof is still building?

You and I both know, the early trials of UWB by the FCC and the technology’s sponsors failed. To say “as far as I’m concerned, UWB has been proven, technically.” Doesn’t count for much when it can only be proven in a lab under ideal circumstances. They couldn’t even test the interference levels because the equipment wasn’t even fully functional. This doesn’t sound ready for prime time. It may be almost ready, but there is a difference.

Yes, radical new technologies that obviate the need for spectrum licensing “present a competitive threat to various spectrum license holders”. Yes, those players have great political influence, therefore, any of us concerned with the greatest outcome for society should be aware of this bias for the status quo. However, we should also be sure that the next technology is the best choice, and that it works before we make that change. I would have to ask you how you can be so certain when the tests failed?

Basically, we’re talking about walking out on a lake frozen over with ice in December. Falling in the lake is going to be a disaster. We can both look over the surface and see it is frozen.
You say, “It’s ready and we can all safely cross.”
The spectrum holders say, “It will never be safe. Don’t cross.”
I say, “Let’s test the ice in a few more spots. When it’s safe, let’s cross.”

Anonymous Coward says:

“But, given that the FCC set things up in a way where it basically created a de facto ownership structure of the spectrum, it’s difficult to see any reasonable way to get that spectrum back without paying for it. “

Just take it to them, it never belonged to them anyways. It’s public spectrum.

“In the link above, Adam Thierer suggests we just give the current holders property rights in the spectrum, and assume that they’ll then sell it off to those who can do something more innovative with it (or change and do something more innovative themselves).”

Public spectrum is not a venue for private gain. The FCC’s job is to do what’s in the best interest of the American people not to give away spectrum to private entities so they can act in their own best interest. Yes, if the private sector benefits to some degree it’s OK but we should ensure that the FCC allocates the resources in the best interest of the American people. If they’re not going to do that then we might as well disbar the FCC and allow the spectrums to go unregulated.

Jerry Leichter (profile) says:

UWB etc.

“Anonymous Coward” the engineer is correct. UWB and related technologies are already here on a technical basis, and will only get better and cheaper. The only thing blocking their adoption is incumbent users – and, even more, an incumbent mindset that divides the world up by “spectrum”. That’s thinking that will soon be obsolete – the sooner the better.

Dividing up the spectrum and turning frequency ranges – to be more accurate, some arbitrary combination of spectrum, power, and location – and selling it off would forever commit us to old technologies. It would make about as much sense as selling off the right to walk in particular directions at particular speeds in particular areas. Sure, you could avoid collisions that way – and auctioning off those rights would be a bonanza for the government – but we have better ways to avoid running into each other, thank you very much.

“Spectrum scarcity” is a combination of several factors. Huge parts of the spectrum are reserved for government/military use. (Look at a spectrum chart some time.) Spectrum allocations are based on old technology, even where the spectrum is actually being used in a traditional analogue fashion. (When tuning involved a resonant circuit, you needed broad guard bands because tuning was imprecise. It’s all digital PLL’s now; you could work much more efficiently.) There are tons of incumbent users who treat “their spectrum” as a property right, and scream bloody murder and anyone taking it away.

Consider proposed white space use as an example. White space systems have to avoid TV signals – OK, let’s accept that as a big user – *and* wireless mike systems in theaters and similar venues that operate on unused TV bands. Let’s get real here: How many such systems are there in the whole country? How much do they cost? Sure, there will be a Committee To Defend Community Theater (funded by who knows what *real* interests) that will complain about small houses on minimal budgets with amateur staffs that will be put out of business by the cost – which could all be replaced for a few 10’s of millions of dollars across the entire country, including the majority which wouldn’t even be interfered with. But this is the kind of thing that blocks innovative use.

Slicing up electromagnetic radiation by frequency band is analogue thinking. With digital systems, a whole new reality can emerge, in which frequency is interesting only because if different transmission characteristics at different points in the spectrum. We need to move away from analogue thinking and come up with a way to deal with the new realities.

Jerry Leichter (profile) says:

UWB, etc: The government is the whole problem

That’s such a nice rationalization: If we just get the government out of the picture, the famous “invisible hand” of the market will solve all problems.

Even Adam Smith didn’t believe that. (He used the term “invisible hand” exactly once in his writing, and had a great deal of discussion of when and where the government should interfere in the markets.)

Interference is a real problem. It was when radio started out, and it will be for new digital technologies. It manifests itself more subtly for the new technologies. In the old days, a strong signal simply swamped a weak one. Now, what it does is decrease the effective signal to noise ratio. That has the practical effect decreasing the rate at which you can send data. Eventually, the rate drops low enough that your system stops working. Tragedy of the commons and all that: Everyone gains individual advantage by using a wider spectrum and more power, which makes it tougher for everyone else.

The free market answer is always: Get rid of the commons, just divvy up the “shared resource” and let the market figure out the best use. Guess what:
That’s exactly what we did when we set up the frequency allocations back in the 30’s. We didn’t *call* it that – the laws never gave anyone perpetual rights to a frequency, just what were more-or-less free rentals for a limited time – but over time, guess what, we grew exactly a property-based system for allocation. If you’re unhappy with incumbents complaining that “their” frequency bands are being taken from them – well, isn’t that exactly what you’d expect a property-based system to look like? Property holders protecting their holdings?

The problem isn’t the government intervention; it’s that as a result of technological change *the basis on which we created “property” out of an abstract EM spectrum no longer makes sense*.

It’s as if we defined ownership of real property solely on the basis of a right to grow plants – crops, animal feed, wood – on it. Fifteen hundred years ago, that would have made some sense – and would arguably have been a better deal for most people then alive than a system defined by and for the interests of a landed aristocracy. But in a modern society, it would make no sense at all, since we’ve since discovered many other ways to use land. Had we gone that route, at some point along the way, we might have had the same problem of how to fix the “land allocation problem” that we do with the “spectrum allocation problem” today.

*What* to replace today’s spectrum allocation with is a difficult problem. There are multiple contending technologies. They use spectrum in different ways, and interfere with each other in different and complicated ways. This is going to take some time to figure out – and it will inevitably end up favoring some technologies over others. It will also inevitably involve the government: It’s the government’s courts that have to adjudicate disputes (if you aren’t willing to let them be adjudicated by private armies), and they ultimately need to have some basis for doing so, which (if you aren’t willing to wait for 100 or more years for precedent to fill in the blanks) will have to come from the legislature.

So forget the anti-government rants. They don’t help.

— Jerry

Spassmeister (profile) says:


FYI – Verizon obtained their 800 MHz spectrum (25 MHz) for free too…25 years ago or so. At that time they were known as the “wireline side” cellular RBOCS: nynex, uswest, pactel, bellsouth, bell atlantic, SBC and ameritech. they all had to purchase their new spectrum (at 1.9 – which used to be analog microwave, 1.7, etc. ALL spectrum between 500 – 3000 MHz has become incredibly valuable, well, unless it is prevented due to Out-of-band restrictions or other regulations.

The issue with the broadcasters has not changed for years. The spectrum the broadcasters have been permitted to use has radically increased in value due to a service they cannot offer – mobile wireless 2 way services. Recall that the 2.5-2.69 GHz band was used by various “wireless cable” operators like PCTV who could never turn a profit with this spectrum.

good luck out-lobbying the broadcasters. they seem to carry lots of weights on capitol hill.

novatom (profile) says:

One word I haven’t heard much in this forum is “free.” You want to do away with over the air broadcasting because you think it’s so “inefficient?” Fine, but I think whoever is the beneficiary of broadcasters’ spectrum should be required to provide at least a portion of their services to the public for free. Say what you will about broadcasting, it’s still the most efficient way to reach mass audiences for FREE.

David (user link) says:

Bad Idea...

Currently there the FCC will auction off spectrum as it is warranted; however, all unallocated spectrum is reserved for amateur radio and by extension, the emergency services like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) and MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System).

As new spectrum is auction off, it comes from the spectrums where these services operate. Without amateur radio, emergency services would be severely affected – despite what many people may think in this time of tiny cell phones and Internet-connected computers, many of these things will find their infrastructure – towers, cabling, bandwidth – all gone during an emergency.

Amateur radio operators were involved in major events like the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 in New York and Washington, and during hurricanes such as Hurricane Rita. Without spectrum, many amateur radio operators would have been unable to respond.

The Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL) is the primary advocacy group in the United States. They have an article from 2002 about this.

One thing I found interesting in the article (I did not know this): the FCC is not the sole manager of spectrum; the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) manages governmental spectrum.

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