How To Allocate White Space

The white space debate is intensifying, with the National Association of Broadcasters running television ads showing a grandmother watching pixilated football thanks to unlicensed wireless broadband using the white space, according to

Evaluating competing claims by mesh network advocates and television broadcasters is enormously challenging for federal regulators. How can the FCC valuate mesh networks relative to other frequency uses?

Unlicensed spectrum isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We have seen incredible growth in bands like 2.4Ghz which are used by walkie talkies, cell phones, mobile broadband cards, and cordless phones. But these bands of spectrum are not allocated for any particular use, unlike the 470-700mhz band that is being considered for mesh networks in white spaces. TV stations occupy most of this range, but there are spaces between stations where frequency is unused; and in rural areas, such empty spaces are fairly common.

The question of how to use white space is murky; while wireless broadband is clearly a valuable use, the risk of disrupting other communications like wireless microphones and digital television signals is cause for concern. Supporters of mesh networks like Microsoft claim that devices can avoid interference, but testing has shown the devices cause some problems with other transmissions.

Regulatory questions like this are inevitable when spectrum is centrally planned. Since regulators lack market signals and have imperfect information, the FCC will increasingly face tough decisions as competing technologies evolve using scarce spectrum.

Spectrum ought to be auctioned off for private ownership, and property rights should be the guiding principle in deciding competing claims on frequencies. If a company owns a certain frequency, it is their right to decide how white spaces are used; they can lease out unused portions of their band, or simply leave these portions empty if interference is a concern. If a station’s broadcasts are being impacted by unauthorized devices, they should be able to seek legal recourse against the source of the interfertence. The market will provide incentives for white spaces to be used efficiently, unlike the current system where neither TV stations or any of the other spectrum users have true ownership of the bands they occupy.