It’s time to stop cheering “Super Wi-Fi”

September 29, 2010, 8:30 AM UTC

If the government really wanted the new, more powerful Wi-Fi to work, it wouldn’t confine it to the margins of the spectrum world.

Just soaking up some long airwaves

When Julius Genachowski announced the creation of “Super Wi-Fi” last week, the nation’s top telecom regulator painted it as a high-tech triumph. Under his plan, the government will open up access to powerful airwaves that can easily penetrate walls, allowing phone calls, tweets, Netflix streams, and every other digital necessity into the zero-bar zones of office buildings and homes.

Just imagine, the Federal Communications Commission chief raved: new Wi-Fi networks will soon be able to cover not just individual homes but whole neighborhoods.

But there’s another way of looking at the birth of Super Wi-Fi: as a tale not of triumph but tragedy. It’s the story of a powerful technology whose potential won’t be achieved because of a bet made long ago on a now outdated technology. A bet that Congress stubbornly refuses to rethink.

At issue here are the airwaves TV broadcasters use to send NBC, CBS, ABC and other local channels—and the empty “white spaces” in between those signals. New technologies like Super Wi-Fi will be required to cram into the white spaces and then forced to adhere to strict power limits and other restrictions so their signals don’t interfere with TV. That’s an absurdity. Why not take all the broadcast frequencies — airwaves worth at least $100 billion—and redeploy them for modern uses?

As it stands, the local TV broadcasts that retain priority over this great natural resource are not only old and inefficient; they’re unpopular.  In order to avoid relying on broadcasters roughly 88% of American homes now pay for either cable or satellite service.

What about the other 12%, including the people who can’t afford cable?  They could win too.  If the government is committed to providing free TV service to the public, there’s no need to waste a resource that is so critical to the future of wireless technology to do it.

Don’t take my word for it—ask a Brit. A two year-old satellite TV service called Freesat now provides access to a whopping 140 channels, many in high-definition and all at no charge to British viewers.

It turns out that modern television satellites, which are essentially space-based antennas, have an advantage their antique ground-based cousins will never match: they can use cheap airwaves. To simplify the science slightly, there are two types of airwaves. Long airwaves are limited in quantity and are prized for their ability to pass through trees, walls and other objects.  (That’s handy if you’d like to use your iPhone inside.) Short waves, while easily blocked by solid objects, are plentiful and cheap. (That’s why Freesat and DirectTV (DTV) satellites, when given an unimpeded view of the dishes on subscribers’ roofs, can beam down hundreds of channels.)

Elsewhere, the natural migration to satellite services using shorter waves is proceeding apace. In August Inmarsat agreed to pay Boeing $1.4 billion to build 3 new short-wave satellites. Those new birds will raise data transmission speeds from the current satellites’ rate of roughly 0.5 megabit per second, using long waves, to 50 Mbps, using short waves.

A similar shift, in which TV broadcasts migrate from expensive long waves to cheap short waves, would be both simple and fun. The long airwaves now given to TV are so valuable that a radical transition could pay for itself.  If the government sold just 10% of the TV airwaves it could fund a U.S. version of Freesat, including subsidizing the cost of rooftop dishes.

Voila!  Lower-income Americans who now count on local TV signals would see their viewing choices mushroom. Better still, doing away with TV transmissions from the ground would free a huge expanse of long airwaves for use by the technologies of tomorrow.

It’s a plan with something for almost every telecom company to hate.  Comcast (CMCSA), DirecTV and their peers will naturally loathe the idea of a Freesat-style competitor stealing their U.S. customers with a no-cost service.  Local TV providers like NBC, ABC (DIS), and CBS (VIA) won’t want to give back the airwaves they were given for free.  And cell service providers like AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ)—companies that collectively own airwaves worth $120 billion—will fear that the flood of new spectrum could drive down the value of their existing licenses.

None of which is any reason to accept the FCC’s current plan. (In any case, this isn’t truly the fault of Genochowski, who was unavailable for an interview. The FCC takes its orders from the real architect of today’s silly system: the U.S. Congress.)

There remains a legitimate debate to be had over how best to deliver TV shows in the 21st century: Through a cable network? Via satellite? Over the Internet? Whatever the right answer, one thing is certain: the current plan, allowing a vast swath of America’s best airwaves to be dominated by ground-based television broadcasts, makes no sense.

Consigning new technologies to white spaces isn’t a march into the future. It’s a sellout to the past.