700 MHz

700 MHz….Last year I gave my take on the telecom industry:

As near as I can tell, most telecom CEOs would sell their mothers into white slavery if they thought it would help them keep one of their competitors at bay for a year or five longer, and their record of bending, breaking, and twisting the rules in order to maintain their monopoly position…would fill a phone book.

Tough! But not tough enough. Here’s Matt Stoller today:

They are monopolists, run by seriously bad people, and viciously anti-democratic. The telecom giants are large, lumbering, stupid beasts; cable companies are quick and weasely, but even more unethical if possible. Both sets of companies offer awful service, dishonest pricing plans, and generally are in bed with politicians at a local level and on a Federal level that it’s literally stunning.

You won’t read that on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. But maybe you should. In a more fundamental way than, say, the soda industry or even the automobile industry, the behavior of the telecom industry really matters to all of us, and the basic problem is not a lack of competition. It’s the fact that there’s virtually no room for new competitors to enter the market.

What brings this up? The issue immediately at hand is the 700 MHz spectrum, an extremely valuable portion of the wireless spectrum that the FCC is getting ready to auction off. If the telecom industry has its way, the entire spectrum will be auctioned off under the current rules to the current players and new competitors will be shut out. If you’re happy with the lousy service and spectacular lack of innovation demonstrated by today’s telecom giants, this is the plan for you.

For the rest of us, a better policy would be to auction off a piece of the spectrum under the usual rules, but to reserve another chunk to be auctioned off under “open access” rules that require the spectrum to be open to anyone who wants to lease it and to any device that’s capable of running on it. This would allow small innovators to enter the market and would open up the spectrum to interesting new devices in the same way that the Supreme Court’s 1969 Carterphone decision revolutionized the phone industry by opening up the old telephone network to answering machines and cordless phones not made by AT&T. But none of this will happen if the entire spectrum gets auctioned off to the usual suspects.

And in case you’re wondering, the 700 MHz spectrum is part of the spectrum currently used by UHF television stations, which have been ordered to vacate it in 2009 when broadcasting goes digital. It’s extremely valuable real estate because UHF signals have a very long range and pass through walls and buildings easily. A single UHF tower can cover far more ground far more efficiently than WiFi, which makes it a perfect candidate for municipal wireless networks.

It’s also the last high-quality spectrum likely to be available for a very long time. If it gets swallowed up by the big guys, that’s it for at least another decade or two. So call your congress critter.