The Negative Sum Game

Microsoft would have you believe their proposal to require broadcasters to hold open at least one additional channel in the broadcast band for unlicensed use is not a zero-sum game. They are right, but not in the way they want you to believe.

TV white spaces held a lot of promise over a decade ago. Perhaps it still does today – by letting unlicensed devices use channels TV stations aren’t using, there is the possibility to make more efficient use of spectrum and provide new services, potentially including additional options for rural broadband access. Broadcasters don’t have any problem with letting Microsoft use truly vacant channels, provided that broadcasters don’t permanently cede their rights to build on those channels in the process. NAB has and will continue to work with Microsoft and other TV white spaces proponents to make reasonable rule changes that improve the ability of unlicensed devices to make use of vacant TV channels.

But that’s not at all what Microsoft’s “vacant channel” ask is about. Microsoft’s ask is not about using vacant channels, it’s about creating vacant channels. Microsoft is asking the Federal Communications Commission to require that, before broadcasters can make any changes to their existing licenses, they first ask whether there would still be at least one channel available for unlicensed use throughout their entire service area. This creates several costs to broadcasters and their viewers:

  1. No matter what Microsoft says, this is not a win-win proposal. The only way this creates extra space for unlicensed use is by denying a broadcaster a channel. Whether this broadcaster is a major network affiliate delivering high-demand programming and top-notch local and national news, a public broadcaster delivering high-quality educational programming, or an independent broadcaster delivering in-language programming to minority communities, this policy means one less voice in the media market. Microsoft maintains this would be a very rare scenario. But that evades the point that this policy is either irrelevant (because there are plenty of empty channels) or is harmful because it deprives viewers of service.
  2. Broadcasters would have to hold open a channel, even if nobody has any interest in using it. Whether it’s that the particular market in question has no demand for white spaces or that the whole white spaces idea is never successful, broadcasters can’t retain or expand broadcast service, because it would violate Microsoft’s proposed rule. White spaces is supposed to be about letting people camp on empty lots, not forcing broadcasters to leave their lots empty just in case someone wants to come along and pitch a tent, even if nobody ever does. Effectively, Microsoft gets squatters’ rights without even having to go through the trouble of squatting.
  3. Even if there is plenty of space available, broadcasters have to spend money to prove that. A few thousand dollars to conduct a study might sound like a small issue when you envision a large broadcast group, but this also applies to rural low-power television stations and TV translators that operate on a shoestring budget and are often community funded. And, multiply that “small number” by thousands of broadcast stations across the country, and you get to a really big problem.

Calling this a zero-sum game is actually optimistic. At best, this proposal creates winners – the massive Microsoft Corporation – and losers – local broadcasters and their viewers. But most likely, everyone loses.