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Making airwaves

THE GOVERNMENT-mandated shift from analog to digital television will allow local broadcasters to provide better picture quality and more programming. The move will also enable a more far-reaching benefit: The airwaves that broadcasters will no longer use for TV signals after Feb. 17, 2009, can be auctioned off for other important uses, potentially raising billions of dollars while encouraging technological and commercial innovation.

Those airwaves are a prime slice of the electromagnetic spectrum, a range of frequencies through which light, radio broadcasts, satellite TV transmissions and a variety of other electronic signals travel. At least 18 UHF TV channels will be reclaimed in the digital transition, and Congress has mandated that four of them be dedicated to public-safety communications.

Parts of six others are expected to be auctioned later this year, in accordance with rules that the Federal Communications Commission is finalizing now. The frequencies will no longer be reserved for a specific use, but the FCC’s rules will help shape who winds up with them and what they can do.

The FCC’s goal for the auction should be to encourage the development of more broadband Internet services. So much of the economy’s potential depends on high-speed Internet access, yet the U.S. lags many Asian and European countries in the percentage of broadband users.

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Whether the available channels can support a competitor to existing DSL and cable-modem services is an open question, but the FCC can improve the odds by making the frequencies available in blocks large enough to create a viable substitute.

The commission should heed recommendations from high-tech and satellite TV firms, which say a 10% increase in the size of the current plan’s blocks would allow for more types of wireless broadband technology. Having more sources of broadband is particularly important in rural areas, where high-speed Internet service has been scarce.The rules should also allow bidders to offer a premium for a national set of licenses, which would encourage the creation of national broadband networks while deterring present broadband suppliers from hoarding the airwaves in a single region. Those suppliers might still try to buy national licenses and offer services that don’t compete with their DSL offerings.

That’s why the FCC should require that, for at least a portion of the spectrum, the winning bidder make its network available on a wholesale basis. Such a requirement would open the door for independent competitors to offer wireless broadband service over a leased network.

The commission should also require that at least some of the new frequencies be open to any compatible device or application that doesn’t interfere with other users of the airwaves. That way, consumer electronic companies could build and sell devices without having to strike deals with network operators.

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The UHF channels offer the chance to foster competition and technological innovation -- a chance the FCC should take. The public owns the airwaves, after all, and their value is measured in more than just auction dollars.


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