2 Fast 2 Spurious – Microsoft’s Vacant Channel Plan is a Sequel We Don’t Need

Summer movie season is well underway, bringing a fresh crop of would-be blockbusters in the form of original movies and familiar sequels. Sequels, of course, are a tricky proposition. For every sequel that arguably improved on the original (“Godfather II,” “Before Sunset,” “Magic Mike XXL”) dozens more serve as stark reminders of the perils of revisiting a played-out concept (I see you hiding in the corner, “Speed 2”).

Microsoft is currently reminding fans why some sequels should never be made. The latest entry in the tech giant’s Vacant Channel franchise is yet another heist movie based on a con game that’s too clever by half.

According to Microsoft, it is urgent that the Federal Communications Commission reserve a vacant UHF white space channel in every market nationwide following the post-auction repack of broadcast television stations, and Microsoft maintains this reservation can be accomplished without causing harm to television stations.

That’s nonsense on its face. The proposal is either unnecessary, because there will be plenty of spectrum, or it is harmful, because there will not be enough. If you were playing musical chairs with someone and he told you, “you must reserve that chair for me, but don’t worry, there are plenty of chairs for everyone,” you would rightly be suspicious. The post-auction repack is essentially a game of musical chairs for displaced low power stations. Microsoft is telling the Commission: (1) it needs to have a chair reserved for unlicensed use, but that (2) there will be no effect from that reservation on anyone else. One of those assertions is untrue.

Microsoft also claims that only the reservation of spectrum can provide the regulatory certainty that Microsoft needs to increase investment in white space technology. But the truth is the Commission just held a lengthy auction of the very spectrum Microsoft claims it so urgently desires. If Microsoft were interested in increasing investment, it had an unprecedented opportunity to get guaranteed access to 600 MHz spectrum with a nationwide footprint. Instead, Microsoft is trying to convince the Commission to give Microsoft a backdoor frequency allocation with exclusive access to that spectrum for free, and on better terms than winning auction bidders received.

Microsoft also already made this play a decade ago. The company asked for spectrum and the Commission granted it, free of charge, in 2010. Since then – despite elaborate promises of investment and innovation – Microsoft and others have done next to nothing to invest in or make worthwhile use of that spectrum.

White space innovation and deployment continue to be largely mythical. Fun fact: there are probably more shots of gear shifts in the first seven Fast and the Furious movies – 311 – than there are white spaces devices providing Internet service in the United States.[1]

Microsoft undoubtedly has dreams of a Vacant Channel expanded universe. “Vacant Channel 2: Wireless Boogaloo.” “Vacant Channel 3: I Still Don’t Know What You Did With That Spectrum Last Summer.” “Vacant Channel 4: Clippy’s Revenge.” (Spoiler alert: Gal Gadot defeats Clippy with a staple remover.)

But the truth is, we don’t need any more sequels. We already know how they all end – with unfulfilled promises and guilt over eating too much popcorn. The Commission has better things to do this summer.

[1] The TV White Spaces database has around 800 devices total across the nation. Based on the number of test devices and the locations of the registered devices, we estimate that less than 300 are actually providing Internet service to homes.