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January 27, 2006

Digital Television and WiFi for the nation at $10 a month

So what happens to all that analog spectrum when, on February 17, 2009, the nation ends analog broadcasting and we all go digital?

Late in December 2005 some important developments unfolded in Washington and more important, in my view, some huge opportunities were left unresolved. When we go digital in 2009 the 210 television markets in the United States will move from one part of the spectrum to another and the vacating of the analog spectrum presents a major opportunity.

Well, TV channels 52-69 are going to be auctioned off to wireless broadband providers. Inside of seconds, the hundreds of millions of dollars from the auction will disappear with no net value as they gets enveloped by the national debt.

What about channels 2-51? In many markets dozens of these channels will remain unassigned after the digital television transition. These are known as "whitespaces". As we are finding out, these vacant TV channels are perfect for WiFi (or other unlicensed wireless services). Given their pervasive footprint, using this spectrum for the public good to enable a national footprint for Wi-Fi services could well catapult the U.S. from somewhere around the 20th most connected broadband country to near the top.

In a bold move in 1952 the Ford Foundation made a grant for $1.3m and an additional $3m in 1954 and established the National Education Network (University of the Air, as it was dubbed back then). NET, with support from Ford and others became PBS in 1970 and the public interest has been well served over these past 50+ years. It is time, again, for out of the box thinking. We need a National Public Wi-Fi Service (NPWFS)for America.

For as little as 35 cents a day, $2.50 a week or $10 a month as NPR/PBS campaign listeners/viewers know well, we could deliver high speed Internet access to every American household. Back in 2004, the FCC under then Chairman Powell initiated a rulemaking to open up these whitespaces to support wireless broadband devices, subject to strict rules around interference.

As is often the case, the public interest has been largely neglected and the prospects for a national broadband strategy submerged under self-interested industrial and bureaucratic resistors to change. More than 60% of the United States does not have broadband services either because it is not available or unaffordable. The social benefit, a modern rural electrification project for the 21st century, a real chance to close the urban digital divide, to catalyze economic growth through entrepreneurs and re-invent the platform for education delivery for the 21st century. Seems like a no brainer using dormant spectrum.

Perhaps it is time for a Ford Foundation or group of foundations to seize the moment and challenge the national policy making community by providing a meaningful match grant. While we await for enlightened thinking and policy making in our nation's capital, the future of our nation's education and global competitiveness continue to hang in the balance.

Posted by lsg8 at January 27, 2006 04:05 PM and tagged Bytes 

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