Keeping an Open Mind on Spectrum

January 11, 2010 , , , ,

As Harold has been saying, a long-term solution to the “spectrum crisis” is going to involve a lot more than just throwing more spectrum at the wireless industry. We also need to look at smarter ways of using spectrum. In this, we're in accord with NTIA, which recently told the FCC that they both “should explore ways to create incentives for more efficient use of limited spectrum resources, such as dynamic or opportunistic frequency sharing arrangements in both licensed and unlicensed uses.” We're on the record as supporting these kinds of approaches.

Spectrum policy shouldn't be dogmatic. We need practical approaches that work, and in reflective moments, people on all sides of the debate, whether they favor property rights, licensing, or a spectrum commons, usually recognize that some balance of different approaches is what's achievable. Indeed, a mixed approach to spectrum policy is probably desirable, as different bands are suitable for different uses, and it sometimes takes real-world success stories (like the wide use of unlicensed WiFi) to convince skeptics that particular spectrum policy approaches are feasible.

Sezmi is a company that has an interesting approach to spectrum use. Basically, it leases spectrum from broadcasters, and sends the most popular cable channels (encrypted) over the air. Its set-top box then integrates free digital broadcasts with this subset of popular subscription channels (using a clever indoor antenna system) to provide the bulk of programming their customers would want. If you think of the distribution of viewers of cable as following the “power law” 80/20 distribution, Sezmi uses broadcasting to deliver the most popular 20% of programming that people watch 80% of the time. Spectral efficiency is achieved in other ways, as well. Sezmi boxes have a lot of internal storage, and popular movies are pushed out over the airwaves to everyone's device, so that those movies are available on demand instantly. As Mark Benscheidt of Sezmi says, “Storage is a friend of spectral efficiency.” (Of course, the boxes connect to the Internet for less popular and specialty programming and movies.)

Sezmi is interesting because of its mix of models: free broadcast and what amounts to “pay broadcast,” as well as using both the airwaves and broadband as a delivery network. It also hints that there are more ways than just “clear and auction” to solve any spectrum shortfalls–leased access to broadcast spectrum can happen (compared with auctions) quickly, and it can start making broadband and other services available. Additionally, people in the policy space need to reconsider whether the Internet is really the ideal model for all video delivery. For live events, the one-to-many model of broadcasting is hard to beat, and will always have advantages over a packet-switched network like the Internet. Other considerations may weigh in favor of using a general-purpose network like the Internet anyway for this kind of content, but that doesn't mean we should pretend like broadcasting, like all technology, doesn't have its benefits along with its costs. Sezmi also uses a “download” model for delivering popular movies and pre-positioning content at the edge of the network. Even purely Internet-based content delivery systems can be well-served by the use of downloads rather than streaming. Podcasts work this way. In fact, I have iTunes set to update my podcast subscriptions overnight, so I have them in the morning–but this is also presumably a time of off-peak bandwidth use. In addition to convenience, a download approach can make better use of bandwidth.

No one knows whether Sezmi will be successful as a business enterprise. Nevertheless, we hope that when considering actions to solve the “spectrum crisis,” the FCC looks to innovative technological approaches such as opportunistic frequency sharing, and economic arrangements other than clear and auction, such as leasing and secondary markets. Novel business models such as Sezmi's show that “clear and auction” is not the only way forward.

About John Bergmayer

John Bergmayer is Legal Director at Public Knowledge, specializing in telecommunications, media, internet, and intellectual property issues. He advocates for the public interest before courts and policymakers, and works to make sure that all stakeholders -- including ordinary citizens, artists, and technological innovators -- have a say in shaping emerging digital policies.