FCC Targets Wireless Broadband
By Carlo Longino, Wed May 05 23:00:00 GMT 2004

The FCC has launched a wireless broadband task force to shape future policy -- but will their attention help or hinder the biggest problem facing this burgeoning industry?

FCC boss Michael Powell announced today the formation of the Wireless Broadband Access Task Force, tasking it to study current policies and make recommendations to promote growth in both licensed and unlicensed services. Powell says the underlying goal is to extend broadband into underserved areas, and increase competition in areas with existing service.

My free-market leanings tell me that government regulation isn't usually the best way to ensure competition, but perhaps this group (if its recommendations have any teeth) will be a sorely needed kick in the pants to get wireless broadband moving in the right direction.

The FCC doesn't have the greatest track record at helping out consumers. While mobile number portability has been a great (and well-publicized) success, other measures haven't done so much. The overhyped Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to increase competition and level of service and reduce prices, but many of those benefits haven't been realized. One major arm of the 1996 act was the deregulation of cable television. That was supposed to open the gates to new providers, unleash new services and lower prices. My cable TV "choice" remain unchanged and limited to the monopoly provider in my area, and my bills have well outpaced inflation in their increase. So much for the benefits of reduced regulation.

Granted, the wireless broadband industry isn't dominated by huge incumbent players like the cable and telephone businesses. But the morass that is US spectrum allocation policy creates a similar situation, giving the companies that control the airwaves control of the industry.

US spectrum allocation has a haphazard look to it, and is a lot like squeezing a balloon. Services get shoehorned in one spot, just for a bulge of conflict to appear in another. The most vivid example is the Nextel mess. Long story short, Nextel's iDEN network operates in the 800MHz band, causing interference with police, fire and public safety radios. Nextel's been working on a solution, and recently offered to swap its spectrum for some in the 1900MHz band along with $800 million. All the other carriers, of course, took exception, with the CTIA trade body saying they should pay $3 billion for some less-desirable 2100 MHz spectrum. Never mind that Nextel's plan makes sense, has the backing of public safety groups, and could be implemented the most quickly.

Current policy seems to be focused on freeing up tiny bits of spectrum, merely creating more inefficiency and bloating. What needs to happen is some aggressive reallocation to support unlicensed devices, as well as technical innovation to allow better utilization of what's out there. Of course there are issues of interference and overcrowding, but there are better ways to handle them than simply offering a tiny dedicated slice of the airwaves to the highest bidder.