The digital crunch

It’s a common saying that the “public owns the airwaves.” But it really doesn’t.

Comcast just made a killing selling it — or at least part of it. Verizon has purchased $3.6 billion of the wireless spectrum from Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. The government sold the spectrum for $2.37 billion in 2006. That’s a pretty nice five-year return on a $2.37 billion investment, which is probably why Comcast didn’t do much with the frequencies except sit on them.

Mashable points out today, however, that the government might have given a lot more away than frequencies in a spectrum:

While the agreement has potential to create many new product innovations, the implications may conflict with some fundamentals of Net Neutrality, which generally holds that services should should not be given preferred status over an Internet connection, regardless of who’s providing that connection. In the Federal Communication Commission’s recently published rules on Net Neutrality, however, some exceptions are made for wireless services.

We are, of course, becoming a wireless world, a world that requires an inexhaustible supply of frequencies and spectrum. The problem is, there isn’t an inexhaustible supply of spectrum.

The government set aside part of it for broadcasters, and there’s a push on to raid those frequencies, the Wall St. Journal said last month:

The concern among broadcasters is that in conjunction with the auctions some broadcasters would be moved to new parts of the spectrum and some viewers may lose one or more stations. But the FCC has committed to minimizing any potential reductions in service, including holding talks with Canadian authorities about interference issues near the border. And it has made clear that it doesn’t intend to relocate stations to inferior spectrum that would limit their product development.

While final details of the plan remain to be seen, there is no reason to think the FCC won’t live up to these commitments. The broadcast industry and its contributions to the economy are not in danger.

Until recently, broadcasters steadfastly denied the existence of a spectrum crunch. But now, with the bipartisan congressional supercommittee on debt reduction poised to endorse spectrum auctions, some in the broadcast lobby have changed their tune–acknowledging the urgent nature of the coming spectrum shortage and claiming that, if left alone, they can ensure the status quo produces innovation and economic renewal.

The “digital crunch” revealed itself in a bad way in Nevada last year when the FCC approved a plan by a company, LightSquared, to build a wireless network with satellite communications. One problem: The frequencies on which the FCC said LightSquared could operate, overwhelm the relatively week GPS signals that operate on a nearby spectrum.