Congress, please don’t kill white spaces

The spectrum bill that passed the House last night will make any technologist weep. I know the tech community is upset over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), but this bill represents a somewhat geekier threat–killing more unlicensed spectrum. So Silicon Valley may want to get active over this one too. The House version of the bill will ensure that none of the airwaves auctioned off from the digital TV band will be used for unlicensed wireless, where services such as Wi-Fi or white spaces broadbandexist.

Free airwaves are good for innovation.

Unlicensed spectrum are the free airwaves that any company can use as long as the it meets certain FCC guidelines. The 2.4 gigahertz and 5 gigahertz bands that Wi-Fi currently works in are unlicensed, as are the 900 Mhz bands used by baby monitors and cordless phones. But under the bill passed last night, none of the megahertz the government gets back from TV broadcasters will be set aside for such use, and instead would end up getting auctioned off to licensed users, such as a network operator.

That’s bad for a variety of reasons, specifically because some of those bands are supposed to be used for delivering Super Wi-Fi or white spaces broadband. Readers might recall efforts by Google(s goog), Dell(s dell), Microsoft(s msft) and others to create a wireless standard that could be used to deliver long-range fixed wireless networks. Companies are still moving forward on plans for the radios, networks and databases needed to build out such a network, but without airwaves to transmit the signal, plans for white spaces are pointless.

So far this bill eliminates more unlicensed spectrum, which is a problem as our demand for more mobile data threatens to push mobile operators into the red. But in many of the predictions of a looming data tsunami the importance of Wi-Fi, (which relies on unlicensed airwaves) goes understated. But, instead of focusing more on delivering licensed airwaves to handle the demand for mobile broadband, the industry, FCC and Congress should be looking at ways to prioritize what types of traffic need to run over licensed airwaves.

Sometimes, you don’t need a license to surf.

This is perfect for Wi-Fi.

Thus, my YouTube videos or maybe even Netflix watching on my iPad could rely on Wi-Fi, while my glucose monitor and important voice or business video calls travel over a licensed network with a carrier providing me a guaranteed level of service. If we start thinking of wireless broadband in thse terms, then the House’s spectrum bill is akin to putting your toddler in a leopard-skin coat. You could, but it’s overkill, rare and expensive to boot. Why not instead let your toddler run around in a snow suit from Target (Tar-jay if you feel fancy).

This best-network-for-the-job mindset helps policymakers see that unlicensed spectrum could be just as valuable as licensed spectrum, which would make this bill untenable. If the prohibition on unlicensed wireless isn’t enough, this bill also seeks to restrict how the FCC can allocate spectrum and plan the auction. The FCC wouldn’t be able to set rules around who could bid on this spectrum or set parameters that would keep the existing spectrum kings of AT&T (s T) and Verizon (s vz) from buying these airwaves. Thus, it might lock up more airwaves in the hands of the existing top mobile operators.

Of course those free airwaves do have a cost … lost revenue for the feds.

FCC Chairman Genachowski testifying before Congress.

In the end this could cost consumers, in the form of higher mobile broadband bills, and stymie the mobile app ecosystem as bandwidth becomes more expensive and is controlled by carriers. In general Congress isn’t trying to utterly crush the tech industry, but it is hard for it to give up the potential billions that auctioning off that spectrum to the highest bidder would entail. As taxpayers, we too should ask ourselves if unlicensed spectrum and more players getting licensed airwaves is worth the loss of a few billion in potential revenue in the government coffers. Unfortunately, few people will think of the debate in these terms.

The Federal Communications Commission is not pleased by this bill, with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski issuing a statement that says:

“One important example is the legislation’s seeming limitation on the Commission’s ability to accommodate new technologies, including those that use unlicensed spectrum, like super WiFi or machine-to-machine Internet connected devices. I encourage Congress to leave no doubt that the FCC can continue its policies to promote unlicensed spectrum use alongside licensed uses.”

The FCC is also likely upset at the overall limitations this places on the agency’s ability to regulate spectrum policy, but the threat to unlicensed here is real and shouldn’t go unnoticed by the tech community. The bill is likely to continue on its merry way unless the Senate decides to push its own version of a spectrum auction bill, which could lead to compromises that preserve unlicensed wireless. So, Silicon Valley, while you’re calling about SOPA, maybe you want to mention this spectrum bill too.