Dumb, er, controversial ideas

The FCC now has until mid-March to submit a National Broadband Plan to Congress. It has been gathering information and opinions by releasing an endless stream of public notices (up to 28 so far) that ask for comments on a wide variety of ideas. In the process, some of the ideas that have appeared in these public notices seem pretty dumb to me. For example, requiring cable operators, satellite providers and telephone companies to supply set-top boxes that work on each others’ networks. Or taking radio spectrum away from broadcasters and giving it to cell phone operators to deliver video.Well, not everyone agrees with me that these are dumb ideas, so maybe I should call them controversial.

Jeffrey KraussBut most comments agreed that the FCC’s idea of “network-agnostic” set-tops for video service is costly and unworkable. The STBs would have to work with all video delivery services. Cable operators use the frequency range 54-1002 MHz on coaxial cable for delivery to the STB. DirecTV and Dish Network use satellite frequencies in the 14 GHz range and down-convert them to around 1350 MHz for delivery to the STB. Some telephone companies use a flavor of DSL and deliver signals to set-tops in the 2 to 30 MHz range. Networkagnostic STBs would have to work with all of these interfaces, and at all of these frequency ranges.

Oh, and then there are new start-up multichannel video distributors like Sezmi, which delivers a combination of real-time and non-real-time cable and broadcast programming via off-air TV frequencies using a different kind of proprietary set-top box with at least two tuners and a huge hard drive.

It was bad enough when the FCC required all cable set-tops to include a 1394 “FireWire” connector, betting that it would become the commonly used interface between set-top boxes, displays and digital recorders. The FCC lost that bet because 1394 networks are hardly used by anyone for consumer electronics, and consequently the FCC imposed unnecessary costs on all cable customers. Network-agnostic STBs would be even more costly and would waste more money.

As a backup plan, the FCC suggested that video service operators supply a simple, inexpensive home network gateway box. In fact, there are numerous companies working on developing products for home networks and home network gateways. But there are numerous physical technologies for home networks. They include coaxial cable, telephone wires, home powerlines and several different radio technologies. So a home network gateway that works with all of these technologies would again impose unnecessary costs on subscribers.

And what does this focus on STBs for video have to do with the Broadband Plan? Nothing much. It’s an area with tremendous complexity and fast technological evolution and at least deserves a separate investigation rather than a handful of questions in Public Notice #27.

Next, consider the proposal to take spectrum away from broadcasters and sell it to wireless operators. That appeared in Public Notice #26. According to this theory, broadcasters don’t need their full 6 MHz channel, so several broadcasters could share a 6 MHz channel – the way it’s done in some European countries. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to deliver HD picture quality with that reduced bandwidth, but that’s too bad because, according to a key FCC staffer, wireless companies are “within five years of having what one would regard as a national problem” due to a shortage of spectrum.

AT&T is reportedly there today, at least in New York City. Perhaps because of spectrum congestion issues, AT&T temporarily stopped selling iPhones in NYC just after Christmas.

But let’s consider how cell phone customers use spectrum. Mostly it’s been used for voice communication, without any congestion problems. For a number of years, customers have used BlackBerry devices and other “smartphones” for e-mail and Web browsing – without any congestion problems.

The iPhone is what caused AT&T’s congestion problem. The iPhone and a few other recent competitors are different from earlier smartphones in one significant respect: They have a big screen with 320 x 480 pixel resolution or more (one new device has 480 x 800). Great for watching video.

And that’s what this is all about. The wireless broadband spectrum shortage is not due to Web browsing or e-mail, it’s due to people watching movies, TV programs and YouTube on their iPhones.

The broadcasters, going after this same market segment, have just developed a standard for delivering television programs to handheld receivers and could devote up to 14 Mbps of their 19 Mbps digital stream to mobile programming. But they wouldn’t be able to deliver video to mobile devices if the FCC takes their spectrum and forces several broadcasters to share a 6 MHz channel.

So the FCC seems to be planning to pick a winner between two competing technologies to deliver video to mobile devices. Bad idea. The FCC often makes mistakes when it chooses one technology over another. But the FCC created a contest in Public Notice #26, and the wireless broadband folks seem to be out ahead.

Controversial ideas? You bet. Dumb ideas? I think so.