I Suppose It’s Worth A Try (When You Are On a Roll…)

There is overstating and then there is overstating.

Last week, NAB proposed to the FCC commissioners some changes to the 600 MHz band plan included in the draft incentive auction order currently under review at the Commission. Specifically, NAB asked the FCC to shelve its planned 6-to-11 megahertz duplex gap that would be shared between wireless and unlicensed services, and instead adopt NAB’s “Plan B” and use a flat 10 or 11 megahertz duplex gap, of which 4 or 5 megahertz would be reserved exclusively for wireless microphones. NAB believes this is both fair and essential, as licensed wireless microphone users will be foregoing the current two exclusive 6 megahertz channels in favor of only 4 or 5 megahertz vital to providing breaking news coverage in local communities throughout the country.

In response, New America Foundation’s Michael Calabrese blasted NAB’s proposal, saying that it “would be a death sentence for unlicensed broadband and innovation post-auction.”

That statement almost made me feel badly. Were we essentially recommending an end to unlicensed innovation as we know it? Would our proposal lead to no more WiFi, garage door openers or cordless phones? Are we proposing to kill off baby monitors, and putting infants at risk across the nation? What have we become?

After some serious soul-searching, my grandmother’s famous chicken soup (good for the soul) and a long hard look in the mirror, I looked to the facts to see if Mr. Calabrese was really on to something.

Fact #1: In March, the FCC massively expanded the spectrum designated for unlicensed services by allocating more than 100 megahertz for that purpose in the 5 GHz band.

Fact #2: Just last week, the FCC launched a proceeding to free up as much as 150 megahertz more spectrum for unlicensed services, this time at 3.5 GHz.

Fact #3: In the draft incentive auction order, the proposal for the 600 MHz band is likely to render the duplex gap unusable for unlicensed services. It envisions scenarios where the duplex gap would be anywhere between 6 and 11 megahertz. Any plan allocating less than 11 or 12 megahertz between LTE uplink and downlink will, according to the unlicensed community, render that spectrum far less valuable.

Fact #4: The FCC’s draft incentive auction order opens up channel 37 and a new guard band that will give unlicensed users brand new nationwide bands, including, for the first time, spectrum in major markets such as New York and Los Angeles.

Fact #5: Under the draft incentive auction order, not only do wireless microphones lose well over half of their shared spectrum, but licensed wireless mic operators lose all 12 megahertz that are designated for exclusive use. Thus, if approved, wireless microphones will have gone from more than 60 megahertz of exclusive spectrum to zero in just five years. If there is any kind of “death sentence” in the draft order, it’s clearly just for wireless microphones.

Unlicensed spectrum advocates – primarily Google and Microsoft – are on a serious roll in the spectrum department. In proceeding after proceeding, they keep racking up more free spectrum. And I completely subscribe to the theory of when you are on a roll, you should keep shooting. Mr. Calabrese’s play is really no more than a “heat check” for the spectrum world and Mr. Calabrese, along with Google and Microsoft, is probably feeling a lot like the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry right now.

Thirty-foot jump shots aside, it is clear that absolutely no innovation is lost under NAB’s “Plan B.” In fact, the unlicensed community will exit 2014 having earned massive allocations of spectrum, including new nationwide spectrum blocks in the 600 MHz band. Thus, NAB’s proposal does nothing to drive a stake through the beating heart of unlicensed broadband innovation.

On the other hand, it is hard to overstate the harm the current draft order would do to wireless microphones and the essential public service they help deliver. These devices – an innovation themselves, for what it’s worth – help broadcasters on a daily basis cover breaking news and weather in local cities and towns across the nation. When the president followed developments in the Boston bombing tragedy, he watched multiple local Boston broadcast TV stations to get well-informed, up-to-date, on-scene reporting. In order for that to happen, broadcasters relied on wireless microphones to deliver the news as it was breaking.

Some unlicensed spectrum advocates believe the TV white spaces database to be some kind of panacea. It is not. FCC rules require that devices check the database only once every 24 hours. Thus, broadcasters can only be sure to be free from interference from unlicensed devices sharing their wireless microphone channels if the world is kind enough to inform them of breaking news a day in advance. And even if the FCC finally amends its rules to permit more frequent checking – which it should have done at the outset – in times of crisis wireless networks often go down, rendering the database useless. That is exactly what happened in Boston following last year’s horrific bombing.

In a more temperate moment, Mr. Calabrese also noted that his coalition “strongly supports the NAB’s position that the FCC should continue to reserve two vacant broadcast channels for priority use by licensed wireless microphones.” He states that “[t]hese channels could be designated post-auction in each market and therefore would not in any way reduce the Commission’s flexibility during the auction.”

To be clear, NAB’s “Plan A” that Mr. Calabrese refers to involves retaining today’s two exclusive channels pre- and not post-auction. This is because a post-auction reservation means essentially nothing in all of the major markets. In most of the top 100 markets, following the auction there will be no spectrum whatsoever available for reservation. Repacking and reallocation will take care of that.

Now I understand the eagerness of many companies – especially major tech companies and wireless carriers – to feed off of the broadcaster carcass in the upper 600 MHz band. The Chicken Little approach, however, won’t get it done. Facts will. And the fact is that wireless microphones need some small exclusive home in their 600 MHz band in order for newsgatherers to keep providing the kind of on-scene up-to-date information for their viewers. There is a place for nearly everyone in the incentive auction, and both NAB’s Plan A and B for wireless microphones reflects the best and most appropriate balance.