An auction early next year of part of the wireless spectrum could well represent a great benefit to consumers, and actually precipitate a new wave of innovation in Internet technology and use.
We would quickly point out, however, that the host of the auction is the Federal Communications Commission, which has been assigned regulatory authority over the use of the airwaves used for broadcasting.
The positive outcomes will be more a function of luck than planning, and highlights the fact that central planning is not the best way to determine who gets to communicate and how.
The FCC, rather than letting the marketplace decide when and how analog television broadcasting will be replaced by digital broadcasting, has mandated the changeover date on its schedule rather than technology’s and the marketplace’s schedule — though it has been reasonably careful to dictate a mandate that is only inconvenient for a few broadcasters, not technologically impossible.
As of Feb. 17, 2009, full-power TV stations will cease broadcasting on their current analog channels, and the spectrum they use for analog broadcasting will be reclaimed and put to other uses, as the FCC Web site puts it.
At least an open auction process is a relatively fair way to get the allocation done — far better than a decision by “experts” in a closed process that could be influenced corruptly or otherwise. We’d prefer that the money raised be divided evenly among the people who supposedly own the airwaves rather than going into the government’s coffers, but we’re not holding our breath.
The FCC has decided that the 700 MHz band will be available for wireless Internet service. It has mandated that a successful bidder must allow users to download any software onto their mobile devices, and to use any mobile devices they want on the network. That way a successful bidder who also makes mobile devices won’t be able to exclude competitors from that piece of the spectrum.
The most encouraging development, however, is that the Internet search-engine giant Google has announced it will participate in the bidding, which is scheduled for Jan. 16. Before that announcement only cable and telephone companies had been expected to participate. Google’s participation will spur competition and the likelihood of innovation that could significantly benefit consumers.
Whether Google wins the bid or not, open access policies will work to Google’s benefit. If more people access the Internet through phones and other mobile devices, more people will launch searches, and a high percentage of those searches will employ Google.
All this, of course, could have been handled, and probably more efficiently, through a private consortium tasked with regulating access to the airwaves. Because Google pushed for open access and has chosen to participate, however, whoever wins will be pushed harder to provide more wide-ranging services, so things are likely to turn out reasonably well for consumers.