Tuesday, September 30, 2008

White Spaces for New York

Follow is my Sept. 29 testimony before the New York City Council:

Free Press is grateful for the opportunity to testify before the Council today. We have nearly 500,000 members nationwide. More than 17,000 of them are New Yorkers, living within the five Burroughs. As public advocates on Internet rights, we strongly support policies that ensure everyone has access to a fast affordable and open Internet.

As you may have guessed by now, “white spaces” are very political. And when lobbyists muddy up the debate the results are rarely productive. In reality, it boils down to this: The white spaces issue pits those who have access to spectrum, and want to keep it for themselves, against those who don’t, and want spectrum to be used to serve other purposes as well. These purposes include high-speed Internet access for those who have been bypassed by the broadband incumbents – or who simply cannot afford access.

In the middle of it all is developing technology, which (despite what you have heard from some of the spectrum haves here today) can and will meet acceptable and certifiable standards of non-interference. Federal Communications Commission engineers are sorting that out at the moment, as they should. And we can all foresee a day in the not-so-distant future when both the haves and the have nots will be able to enjoy this spectrum in ways that benefit us all.

Politics should not stand in the way of better technology, especially technology that could bring vast benefits to so many. So let’s put the politics of white spaces aside for a moment to look at the problem, and the opportunity.

The Problem: U.S. Broadband Falling Behind

The divide is wide. Since Internet access became publicly available in the 1990s, America has failed to deliver the Internet's tremendous benefits to everyone. As a result, millions still stand on the wrong side of the "digital divide."

Since 2001, the United States has fallen from fourth in the world in broadband penetration to 15th in the world today. Worse, our growth rate over the past year ranks us 20th out of the 30 countries.

The divide is economic. In America, only 35 percent of homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have a high-speed Internet connection. Moreover, nearly 20 million Americans live in areas that are not served by a single broadband provider; tens of millions more live in places where there is just a single provider of high-speed Internet service.

And it's racial. Broadband's promise is not being realized equally across all racial and ethnic groups in our country. Only 40 percent of racial and ethnic minority households have access to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected.

American consumers pay far too much for far too little compared to citizens in other countries. We have the eighth-highest monthly rates for broadband service among leading developed nations. In real terms, this means Internet users in Japan pay about half the price for an Internet connection that's 20 times faster than what's commonly available to people in the United States.

In New York City, these problems are acute. A July 2008 report for the city by Diamond Management & Technology Consultants found that nearly three out of four low-income New Yorkers lack a high-speed Internet connection in their home. That's more than 666,000 households, according to the report, or literally millions of New Yorkers. The problem is concentrated in public housing, and especially among public housing residents over the age of 65 -- less than 5 percent of whom are connected to broadband.

The Opportunity: Unlicensed White Spaces in New York City

Free Press analyzed the availability of frequencies in the television band for the five Burroughs of the city (see attached). We found that after the February 2009 digital transition there will be ten vacant channels in New York City.

That means that 20 percent of the entire TV band will be sitting idle. This is amazing given the usual spectrum crowding that occurs in heavily populated areas. By way of contrast, in Juneau, Alaska, 74 percent of the same band will be vacant.

Still, 20 percent is a lot of airspace and it can be put to good use.

White spaces are especially suitable for low-power broadband use. Better than WiFi, white spaces are capable of transmitting high-speed Internet signals great distances and through concrete buildings.

Important, if we were to limit this spectrum to licensed use, there would be NO white spaces for use in New York City – none at all. This is because unlicensed use permits low-power smart devices, such as those being created by engineers at Phillips and Motorola. Licensed use does not.

This underscores an important point: Licensing of this spectrum in New York City means no new broadband providers. Opening white spaces on an un-licensed basis represents one of the last, best hopes we have to deliver vital broadband services to New Yorkers who need them most.

For the promises of the Internet to be met, we need to make sound decisions that encourage faster, more open and affordable access for everyone. The successful use of new broadband technologies are vital to the future of our country, whether you live in Juneau, Alaska, New York City or all places in between. Opening white spaces for unlicensed access is the right decision for the right technology.

It's important that the Council of the City of New York not stand in the way of this important innovation. As it is written, this resolution is not only unnecessary, but also a step in the wrong direction.

Instead, we urge you to ask the FCC to decide in the public's best interest, and that is to move rapidly to open white spaces for everyone.

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