The 700mhz spectrum and why it matters to you

In January 2008, there will be a huge event going on behind closed doors. In the US, the FCC will be holding an auction for the 700mhz spectrum band, and it is expected to be a hard-fought battle of money, interests, and power. The 700mhz band is currently occupied by analogue television channels. Since the US Congress has legislated that analogue television signals can no longer be broadcasted starting in 2009, this prime radio frequency real estate will become available for other uses.

This is very significant in part because of the spectrum band itself. The 700mhz band has the unique properties of being able to travel great distances with low interference, and it can travel effortlessly through obstacles such as walls. This means that it is a perfect replacement for existing wireless networks (think of the cell phone PCS network) or even enabling new applications (continent-wide broadband internet access... anywhere, anytime!).

There are a number of important players involved. For one, the major telecoms, as you might expect, want to gain control of the spectrum so that they can continue their rape and pillage of consumers' pocketbooks. On the other hand, Google is also fighting for control of the spectrum. They have made it quite clear that their intentions are to develop a network of country-wide broadband internet access. It would be relatively inexpensive to deploy (a few billion dollars, or about the cost of the latrines in Iraq), and it would open the doors to a whole variety of new devices and applications. Think of the innovative iPhone. Now imagine the iPhone being unencumbered by expensive service contracts, coverage issues, speed concerns, etc. Your voice would be transmitted using something akin to the already existing Voice-over-IP (VoIP) protocol which digitizes audio signals and sends it across existing internet infrastructure. Imagine access to the Internet on your mobile device without having to hunt around for an open hot spot, or pay for minute-by-minute access to one. There is a world of possibilities.

The 700mhz spectrum, as I mentioned, is inexpensive to deploy. A single tower would be able to cover the same range that it currently takes 4 PCS (cellphone) towers to cover, and it would be able to do so at a much greater speed, and with much less interference and signal loss issues. For reference, the 2.4ghz spectrum that WiFi-based technologies use, would take 9 towers to cover the same area, at a much greater cost.

The telecoms such as Verizon have not been very receptive to this idea. They prefer that the spectrum remain a closed system, such as current cellular networks are. Google's appeal to the FCC was to make it open, and allow the winning bidder to easily license access to the network to any developer. This opens up HUGE doors to innovative applications and mutually-beneficial competition. The FCC agreed with Google, and Verizon subsequently sued the FCC claiming that their decision was unfair and violated the US constitution (don't ask me how or why, that puzzles me too). Google has been secretly working on some type of mobile device for some time now. It is unclear as yet whether it will be a phone or it will be a mobile platform and operating system similar to the Palm OS or Windows Mobile.

Also of note is the fact that the FCC plans to reserve a portion of the spectrum as a personal emergency frequency. This would be of a huge benefit to outdoor enthusiasts such as myself, as it would enable the development of more effective personal distress beacons for all types of applications (aircraft, boating, backpacking, etc.).

It is in our best interests that the technocrats and visionaries win out this war for the beachfront property that the 700mhz spectrum represents. A backlash against the disgusting racketeering that the telecom companies currently engage in is ultimately beneficial for consumers, and would open the doors to a whole new world of interconnectedness, interoperability, innovation, and communication. It is a sad reality that such an important decision will be decided behind closed doors by the bidder that has the most friends and the most money-filled briefcases.