The Real Story Behind 'Super WiFi' And The Fight Over Spectrum; It's Not What You Read Yesterday

from the holy-crap dept

Early yesterday morning, I saw that Cecilia Kang at the Washington Post had a story up about the years-long fight for white spaces entitled: Tech, telecom giants take sides as FCC proposes large public WiFi networks. It struck me as odd, because so much in the article seemed… wrong or misleading. The main part about efforts to finally do something with the old TV spectrum isn't anything new at all. We first wrote about the FCC “proposing” this back in 2004 and have covered it a few times since. The FCC has been trying to use some of that TV spectrum for better, more efficient and more useful endeavors. It's been an ongoing battle that feels like it's never going to end. The short version is that TV broadcasters got a ton of free spectrum many years ago (just look at how giant chunks of the spectrum chart belong to TV broadcasters). A big part of the move to digital TV was to force broadcasters to give up a chunk of wasted, valuable spectrum that can be turned into (among other things) some useful wireless services. TV broadcasters hate this and have been fighting it in a variety of ways.

The latest version of this plan is for the FCC to do a multi-part, multi-directional “auction” process for a chunk of spectrum currently held by the broadcasters. Part of that auction would be to offer incentives to broadcasters to cough up the spectrum. And then part of it would be auctioning off whatever spectrum broadcasters agree to dump. Finally, part of it would also include designating some portion of the spectrum for unlicensed uses.

All of this is ancient history. Really ancient history. So why is the Washington Post suddenly covering this? From the article, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is all new and that the FCC has plans for some amazing free “super WiFi.” Except that's not true. At all. Well, except the part that caught most people's attention: that this would be about offering “free internet service” across the country. That part is new. And that's because it's not true. You still need backhaul and service. It's just about freeing up the spectrum so that it can be used to provide service. The FCC isn't suddenly planning to get into the broadband service ISP business. Nor could they.

Think of it this way: just because WiFi exists, it does not mean that everyone suddenly has free internet access if they buy a WiFi router at their local Best Buy. Nope. They have to connect that to a service. Same thing with anything being talked about here. More spectrum may be freed up for “open” use — meaning more things like WiFi — but there will still be service providers offering services over it in some form or another. Could some of them offer “free” service? Possibly. Just like you might get “free” internet access from your neighbor with open WiFi, who pays for his connection. But that's not what anyone's really talking about.

However, if you could be forgiven for thinking that this was new and amazing (and true), I don't think the same forgiveness should be given to parts of the press who ate this story up. Business Insider (apparently, without any benefit from any actual “insider”) wrote a breathless piece about telcos trying to stop the government from offering super WiFi. Except… no. Others, who should have known better yet still wrote about it, included Popular Science (awful) and Mashable.

Moving to the mainstream, newswire UPI picked up the story, taking some comments from FCC boss, Julius Genachowski, out of context. He was quoted in the Post piece as saying “Freeing up unlicensed spectrum is a vibrantly free-market approach that offers low barriers to entry to innovators developing the technologies of the future and benefits consumers.” But the confusion is his use of “free.” He's not talking “free service” but freeing the spectrum so that anyone can offer services, like WiFi, over it without having to buy a license.

Others similarly jumped on the story without understanding it at all. The Daily Caller talked about it as if it was some new plan, as did Fox. Similarly, you had ThinkProgress and Salon chiming in on the other side of the political spectrum.

Thankfully, some spoke up in response, but even then there's still some head-scratching about this whole thing.

Karl Bode, over at DSLReports, quickly questioned Kang about the whole story, and she claimed that the story was “motivated by the new comments to the FCC” from various players both in support and in opposition of the latest spectrum auction concerning “white spaces.” But… again, the auction has been planned for a while — and it's not really about “white spaces” but adding existing “white space rules” to some of the newly available spectrum (more below). There's really nothing new here, other than some comment filings about how this auction should go down, which add little to the discussion beyond what's been said already. It's the same players saying the same thing, but just in direct reference to the upcoming spectrum auction.

Jerry Brito, over at the Tech Liberation Front, digs into the details and suggests that this whole thing involves something of a comedy of errors, with massive confusion not just over what's been going on with TV white spaces, or the new comments, or the upcoming spectrum auction… but also with a completely different band of spectrum that Genachowski spoke about last month at CES.

Parsing Kang's story a little bit more since posting this, I've become even more confused. In her tweet she says she's talking about the white spaces in the incentive auction NPRM, but those couldn't possibly be used for a nationwide wireless network since they'd be low-power Part 15 type bands. Also, unlicensed in the 600 MHz guard bands are not Chairman Genachowski's design, they were allowed by Congress when they gave the FCC auction authority. So what is Kang referring to? Most likely it is the Chairman's initiative, announced at CES earlier this month, to clear 195 MHZ in the 5 GHz band to improve Wi-Fi…. Bottom line, I think Kang conflated two separate proceedings into one big non-story that made it past the Washington Post's editors all the way to the top left corner of the front page. I hope there is a correction tomorrow.

While this actually makes some sense, I don't think that's correct either. After all, the FCC's own summary of the upcoming incentive auctions makes it clear that it views “super WiFi” as a possible outcome from the television white spaces being unlicensed:

The FCC recently developed provisions for unlicensed devices to operate on TV channels that are not used at any given locations, called “white spaces.” Interference is avoided by controlling access to the spectrum through a database of protected service areas. The white spaces in the TV spectrum offer an opportunity for a new generation of products such as Super Wi-Fi and wireless broadband services for communities, particularly in rural areas. In the incentive auction proceeding, the FCC proposes to make a substantial amount of additional spectrum available for unlicensed uses. First, the Commission proposes to continue allowing the operation of white space devices in the broadcast television spectrum in the newly repacked band. In addition, the FCC proposes to make the guard bands in the new band plan available for unlicensed use. Under the plan discussed above, the two proposed guard bands would be 6 MHz wide and could be larger when accounting for the addition of “remainder spectrum” resulting from the uneven division of 6 MHz wide television channels into 5 MHz blocks. Furthermore, the FCC proposes allowing unlicensed devices to operate for the first time on Channel 37 by establishing appropriate protections for existing operations in the white space database. Taken together, the FCC's proposals will enable a substantial amount of spectrum use by unlicensed devices. A significant portion of this spectrum will be available on a nationwide basis, which is important because there currently is little or no white space in the TV bands in parts of many major markets. In making these proposals, the FCC seeks to promote greater innovation in new products and services, including increased access for wireless broadband services across the country.

The confusion, I believe, is that the FCC is talking about two different types of spectrum in the above quote, though if you're not reading carefully, you might think that it's just about the spectrum they plan to be auctioning off. That's not the case. Much of the above is actually talking about the existing TV white space spectrum that has been fought over (which is generally in the 700 MHz realm — 698 to 806 MHz). The new spectrum auction is in the 600 MHz block (572 to 698 MHz), but as part of the discussion on this new auction, the FCC is reminding people that (a) the existing TV white spaces will remain available for unlicensed use and (b) that the new auctions should, in theory, add additional open spectrum to them (under the same rules), specifically looking at freeing up channel 37 (608 to 614 MHz) (once called “the last empty channel”), as well as portions of the so-called “guard bands” between licensed spectrum chunks, that they would like to “add” to the existing white space rules, which are supposed to minimize (or eliminate) interference problems in the white space.

The “comments” that were given by various players are really just about how the auction should run, with some discussing how much space should be allocated to such unlicensed uses. In particular, many weighed in on how much should be allocated to the “guard bands” and whether they should be attached to existing TV white space rules for interference-avoiding open spectrum. Kevin Drum, over at Mother Jones, actually has one of the better explanations for the complexities of the upcoming auctions, and the issue of guard bands:

In short, because there's that first reverse auction in which broadcasters are supposed to be incentivized to cough up existing spectrum (again, which taxpayers gave them for free…), it's not entirely clear how much 600 MHz spectrum will be available to be auctioned off to anyone. Basically, they have these two chunks, starting at 608 MHz and counting down, and another at 698 MHz and counting down — and the total amount available will depend on how much the broadcasters agree to cough up in the reverse auction. At the “bottom” of that range, the FCC has proposed a 6 MHz guard band for each of these chunks, and making much of that subject to the existing white space rules and hopefully allowing something useful to be done with that unlicensed spectrum, especially if it's combined with other available white space. The “guard bands” are called that, as they're supposed to “guard” between interference between licensed spectrum on either side, though there's a fair bit of debate over how much space is really needed to “guard” such interference. That argument leads to some suggesting that the FCC is offering up too much for the guard bands in an effort to get more unlicensed spectrum on the market.

The fight is over how much spectrum is used for unlicensed and how much for licensed. The telcos, like AT&T, want to limit the unlicensed spectrum, while internet companies, like Google, want as much of it as possible. Similarly, there are some in Congress who are against offering very much (if any) unlicensed spectrum, taking the really dumb short term view that any unlicensed spectrum (even if it leads to tax-creating innovations) is leaving money on the table, since telcos are expected to spend billions buying up any licensed spectrum available. Again, though, that's the same old story.

In short: there's an ongoing fight about how much spectrum in newly auctioned 600 MHz spectrum will be “unlicensed,” which is important for some cool things. But, that's got little to do with a magic “free” nationwide internet service. This is important stuff, but the reporting by many folks has been abysmal.

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Comments on “The Real Story Behind 'Super WiFi' And The Fight Over Spectrum; It's Not What You Read Yesterday”

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Ninja (profile) says:

The more clueless ones will think the article is about the spectrum fights but it’s yet another piece on how most big news outfits fail at the most basic fact checking while insisting that they are the only ones that can do proper investigative journalism – I chuckled while saying that and thinking Fox.

So my two cents in the spectrum part: seriously, the chunks were given the broadcasters for free. They should NOT have any word on whatever happens outside of the strictly technical and scientifically proven realm. If they need less of the spectrum for their broadcasts then they should just get what’s needed and BUY whatever they needed for the new services they should be providing by using that ‘unused’ portion of the spectrum.

My two cents on the core of the article (bad journalism): anything should be taken with a grain of salt. Even Techdirt if you ask me. Because anyone can err and TD has done it in the past. However, a news outfit (or blog, or any information source) can be deemed good, trustful by the speed they catch these errors and how well they advertise those corrections. Fox, well, they don’t even do the basic homework. Most of the errors can be avoided this way.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Still there’s a lesson here: people would love to see the government create an actual national free public WiFi network. I wonder if any of our representatives or agency directors managed to pick up on that subtext.

That was my thinking after reading the Techdirt analysis. While the media got the story wrong, the idea of government spending going into improved infrastructure has been popular among left of center circles for a long time. Gets money into the economy and improves the country, too.

Davey says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t know what “left of center” has to do with it. Is it left of center” to want the USA to move up from having the worst and costliest cell/Net services in the developed world? Our betters in this regard got there through various parameters that all included tight regulation and/or government-led development and/or not giving away their precious spectrum licenses for next to nothing.

The current beneficiaries of the ill-advised spectrum giveaways got them on the promise of all kinds of magical services developing, none of which have appeared after decades of waiting. The government has every right to take back everything they gave away due to gross failure to meet expectations.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Sure, let’s just completely ignore geography and population density to make this comparison. I’m sure that has nothing to do with it. Let’s also completely ignore that we got to where we are through joint government and corporation cooperation. No, the solution is clearly more government. It’s almost like that conclusion is inescapable no matter what happens…

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No it doesn’t. Every dollar the government spends, every single one, must first taken out of the economy to be spent. Taking this money out of the economy isn’t free so in practice it’s usually more than a dollar out for every dollar actually spent.

In terms of economic stimulation, whether the government does it or the private sector does it, the money comes from somewhere and gets spent somewhere. The difference with doing it as a government-funded service is that if the goal isn’t to make a profit, the services might actually be provided cheaper. Think of it as a co-op or a commons. If it is a publicly-owned operation, it can work. The US Interstate system worked well as a public operation rather than having a system of highways run as privately-owned toll roads.

I could point you to lots of stuff on public versus private ownership in the P2P Foundation.

artp (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Because. Bread and circuses are still more important than social justice and a fair, distributed economy.

We NEED more Beelionnaires!

Same thing goes for any part of the economy that touches entertainment – RIAA, MPAA, print publishing, news services, Artists Guild, Metallica, Microsoft (slapstick), Oracle (yacht races), The SCO Group (more slapstick)……..

But not you.

JWW (profile) says:


But just imagine if it were true. Imagine if the government built a nationwide, fast wi-fi network. Imagine the technological innovation and change that could happen.

The ONLY element of the economy that would suffer would be cell carriers and ISPs. But the benefits to ‘We the People’ would be enormous. Heck the benefits to most ‘Businesses are People’ would be enormous too, except to the aforementioned cell and ISP companies.

If this were done it could spur an economic renaissance.

But of course established companies that have captured our government and the established entities that would demand full surveillance on this network (I’m looking at you RIAA and MPAA) would block us from this possible bright future.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Imagine

The article I read in today’s Philly Inquirer touched on that (I’m not sure they got the particulars of the situation right or not – headline reads “FCC Proposes Public Wifi Networks”), how when spectrum was made available in the 80s there was wave of new consumer items like baby monitors and other things wireless.

DanZee (profile) says:

Free WiFi

I heard this on my local radio station this morning. The newscasters were probably quoting from a reprint of the Washington Post story in the Boston Globe. The piece was that basically the government is going to offer a free, more powerful Wifi that can penetrate even through cement walls. Doing a Google search, it seems quite a lot of websites are parroting the story. Thanks for setting the record straight. I knew it was too good to be true.

Deborah D. McAdams (profile) says:

White spaces will change

Well done, Mike, and thanks. Just one small nit:

“…the FCC is reminding people that the existing TV white spaces will remain available for unlicensed use.”

Not likely, since some of those channels will be redesignated for wireless broadband and consequently become unavailable for unlicensed use. Whatever channels remain unoccupied by TV stations in the repacked spectrum likely will continue to be available for unlicensed use.

As for Ch. 37, it’s now occupied by radioastronomy operations because of its particular propagation characteristics, I’m told. I believe Congress tentatively set aside a relocation fund for Ch. 37, but that it’s not yet certain those users will be moved. ~ D.

Androgynous Cowherd says:

Dud link?

channel 37 (608 to 614 MHz) (once called “the last empty channel”)

In the article, the text “the last empty channel” is a link, but it doesn’t have anything at it, to speak of. Just a few colored blocks of background and a few words of text, one of which particularly makes no sense (“related searches”, when no search was performed).

This link seems to display (sans images) the correct content. So it looks like the site was defaced very recently in a page-blanking-style attack; presumably a few hours after this blog article was posted.

The article should probably be updated to use the above link, unless the site owner takes back control of his server and restores from backups quickly.

BX21 (profile) says:

Govt run nation wide Wi-Fi? Are you kidding?

The Govt can’t run much of anything very well. They should just regulate private enterprise (fairly) and get out of the way. If the US Govt opened nation-wide Wi-Fi service, it would lose money and function poorly and lots of people would pay for service from a private company who could supply a more higher-performance service. Who ever thinks (JWW) Govt provided Wi-Fi would unleash “technical innovation and change” is out-of-touch with reality.

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