Broadcasters fight hard against public use of blank spectrum

The National Ass. of Broadcasters continues to fight tooth and nail against opening up the "whitespace" in the broadcast spectrum. Broadcasters get to use America's spectrum for free. To keep interference to a minimum, the majority of the nation's broadcast-ready spectrum is left intentionally blank, so that broadcast signals face a minimum of interference — for example, if channel 2 is allocated in San Francisco, it will be left blank in San Jose, so that people halfway between in Palo Alto won't get half of each signal.

However, there's plenty of room for use of that whitespace in WiFi-style devices that are smart enough to know where they are and adjust their use of spectrum accordingly. The tiny sliver of spectrum given over to WiFi (and other unlicensed uses) at 2.4GHz has generated untold billions in economic activity and public good.

Nevertheless, the broadcasters — who are squatting on all this beachfront spectrum that actually belongs to the public — are pulling out all the stops to prevent anyone from lighting up this unused spectrum and doing anything useful with it. For example, rural communities could use their local whitespace frequencies to provide "fixed wireless" links to homes and businesses where no DSL or cable-modems reach.

The broadcasters argue that we dirty unlicensed users of spectrum will surely spoil their lovely groomed golf-course of sitcom reruns, sporting events, and reality TV, and the mere possibility of a single bit of interference is too much to countenance, no matter how great the potential rewards.

And who are we to disagree? After all, we only own this spectrum that we've loaned to them.

White spaces are blank spots in the TV lineup where no stations transmit; they vary in number and location around the country, but even major markets have open slots. Tech companies and digital rights groups have been pushing hard at the FCC to make these white spaces available for broadband access. While the FCC has already approved the idea of fixed transmitters, the more contentious issue is whether millions of consumers should be allowed to install mobile, unlicensed transmitters in homes and businesses.

The WIA represents companies like Google, Philips, and Microsoft that are trying to build the devices in question, so it's no surprise that Corbett is bullish on the possibilities, dismissive of interference complaints, and given to talking of white spaces as a crucial battleground. But she's not the only one.

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