Conference Summary – More Weak Arguments from Big Companies

I attended the Optimal Coevolution of Mobile Broadband Technology and Spectrum Policy workshop in Washington D.C. on Friday.  A number of leading spectrum policy and technology figures were present.

Key takeaways:

1)   Blair Levin (Aspen Institute Fellow and an author of the National Broadband Report) indicated that earlier drafts of the National Broadband Plan included a larger reduction of broadcast spectrum than the proposed 120 Mhz. Seemed to suggest that even with broadband speeds significantly lower than the National Broadband Plan’s goals of 100 megabits per second, there would be no need for broadcast television. Presumably, all of that spectrum could be redeployed for mobile broadband or other high value uses.

2)   Thomas C. Power (presidential advisor for Technology Policy) indicated the federal government was moving on numerous fronts to encourage agencies that were not efficiently using spectrum to give it up or share it. He discussed the presidential memorandum released earlier that day. This includes greater reporting requirements, enhanced monitoring of usage levels, and aggressive inventorying of government usage. Mr. Power seemed confident these measures would shake loose spectrum for sharing.  I am not as confident as he is that the executive office will be able to get many agencies to return or share spectrum. But any measures that increase the cost for agencies to keep it may be part of a solution to encourage them to give eventually share or return it.

3)   A representative from a major equipment provider gave a presentation that included advocating Wi-Fi spectrum expansion. A leading industry economist asked him if there was any indication Wi-Fi bands were congested or might become so in the future. Incredibly, neither this representative nor anyone else in the audience of industry experts could think of any real evidence of the need for more Wi-Fi spectrum! Most reported Wi-Fi congestion in office is the result of poorly set-up systems that can be easily solved. I am not arguing that there is no need for additional Wi-Fi capacity, but rather that the case for it has not been made. The best argument for additional Wi-Fi spectrum might that the panned FCC approval of Wi-Fi “signal boosters” will extend the Wi-Fi range and reduce frequency reuse. But if there is no clearly documented demand for additional Wi-Fi spectrum, they why is there such a push for more of it? Who benefits when additional Wi-Fi bands are added and everyone needs upgrade their equipment to make sure it is compatible with all of the new devices being made for the new bands? (sic)

4)   Another representative from a large telecom company had little response to a question about why the industry is largely focused on continuing bandplans based on equally sized pairs of uplink and downlink spectrum when most research shows there is between 8 and 30 times more downlink traffic than uplink traffic. This wastes a large portion of the uplink spectrum. The representative had little response other than an acknowledgement that the asymmetry is driving femtocells to use a TDD format. Obviously, a long term plan to increase the amount of downlink spectrum relative to uplink or a move to a TDD based system (TDD sends and receives on the same spectrum) would be politically difficult. But such a plan could increase the effective amount of available spectrum by perhaps 30% to 45%. However, there is little industry discussion except occasional ideas of “supplemental downlink spectrum” for the new 600 MHz band plan. Others from the equipment side seem to always bring up obscure scenarios as a reason for keeping equal-size spectrum pairing. These include parties where young people send video clips to their friends and thus there is more uplink traffic. Two weeks ago I participated in a panel where an industry representative indicated that the asymmetry between upload and download was relatively new – starting with the advent of Internet capable phones – and might not last (as if the Internet was just a fad). I am really not sure who benefits from wasting spectrum with the current equally sized band plans. Perhaps it’s the companies without TDD type technology?

While I am not surprised industry representatives make self-serving arguments in an attempt to influence their regulatory interests. That is their job and it happens in all industries and is not necessarily inappropriate. However, I am shocked at the hollowness of the arguments currently being made by senior officials in the telecom industry. This observation dovetails with my earlier post of how the large industry players are driving the industry policy discourse by the sheer size of their bullhorns and crowding out other views – sometimes with positions for which they have almost no supporting information. Last month I was at another industry workshop and wrote a blog post in response to a similarly absurd suggestion from a senior trade association official that the U.S. was behind other countries, including Europe in mobile broadband. There are a lot of smart people in the telecom industry, isn’t it about time we try to raise the level of the discourse?

Kudos to Peter Rysavy and John Mayo for organizing a high quality event.