The Power of Using Spectrum "White Space" as Commons

A new report on the unlicensed “white spaces” of the electro-magnetic spectrum makes a point that broadcasters and property-rights ideologues have trouble acknowledging that using spectrum as a commons can be tremendously productive. It can serve important social needs and generate wealth more efficiently than if the spectrum is controlled by companies with exclusive property rights in it. That’s the basic conclusion of Pierre de Vries of the New America Foundation in his working paper, “ Populating the Vacant Channels.” De Vries is a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communications and formerly a technology policy expert at Microsoft.

Here’s why spectrum can and should be used as a commons: When broadcasters complete their transition from analog to digital transmission, there will enormous “white spaces” in the spectrum that will be available. Some of this white space consists of “guard bands,” or empty space between adjacent broadcast channels, which were originally intended to prevent signal interference. But digital technologies now make it much easier to avoid signal interference.

There is also unused white space in the spectrum because of uneven population distribution around the country. On average nationwide, only 23 percent of the spectrum allocated for TV channels 14-51 is actually used. The remaining spectrum band is essentially vacant! This happens in rural areas, for example, because there aren’t enough viewers and advertisers to support a full set of channels. But even in urban areas, the vacant channels and guard spaces leave significant white space.

So if spectrum is a vastly under-used resource that we, the public own, why shouldn’t we get a fuller benefit from the white spaces available? That’s precisely the point of de Vries’ report, which urges Congress to require the FCC to allow unlicensed use of the digital TV spectrum.

He argues that there will always be vacant channels in the digital TV bands, and that they are usable without harmful interference to TV reception. Moreover, the best way to use this resource is to make it available as unlicensed spectrum. That means that no broadcaster or other corporation could receive an FCC license giving it exclusive control over the spectrum. It would be shared by many companies and individuals simultaneously, much as we share the transmission capacities of the Internet. “I consider an unlicensed band to be a ‘managed commons’ owned and supervised by the government, rather than property owned in common by all users,” writes de Vries.

The white space should be managed as a commons because it can be a tremendously hospitable environment for spurring innovation, competition from newcomers, and socially equitable access. Unlicensed spectrum is the critical resource used by WiFi networks, local area networks and Bluetooth devices. Since the 2.4 GHz ISM band was opened up to anyone (it was once known as the “junk bands”), WiFi technology has become a standard feature of laptop computers. It has enabled the consumer electronics industry to incorporate wireless features into cameras, toys and other devices. It has been a critical resource for Internet voice services and mesh networks. If the spectrum in this less-desirable sector of the band had been auctioned off and enclosed in property rights, it’s unlikely that this explosion of innovation would have occurred.

The fallacy of traditional licensing policy is that exclusive property rights are the only way to create a market and reap its benefits. But here is a powerful example of how a managed commons can stimulate market activity. It’s just that it’s not a market of broadcasters per se, but of device manufacturers and alternative transmission uses (WiFi, etc.). The larger lesson I draw: allow a protected commons to flourish and you will unleash a more robust, innovative and socially equitable market.