Next Tuesday the Federal Communications Commission will reveal the entirety of its National Broadband Plan, over a year in the making. Required by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which authorized $7.2 billion in broadband stimulus spending, The Plan will weigh in on about a thousand broadband related subjects—how to help more people get it, how to help industries provide it, ways to encourage innovations that the FCC hopes will stimulate more broadband adoption, like IP video.
The chances are, though, that it won’t have much to say about radio
Oh yes, it will talk about “radio” spectrum a whole lot—in the sense of licenses from 500 KHz to 2.5 GHz that licensees use to transmit video, voice, text, audio, and whatever. But unlike every other broadband related medium, from social networking through web video, almost no one has anything to say on a policy level about radio delivered over high speed Internet, either through desktops, laptops, netbooks, or smartphones.
Indirectly, however, the National Broadband Plan will no doubt have an impact on both Internet and broadcast radio. Here are my speculations as to why and how. But nota bene, this is strictly thinking out loud stuff; as the saying goes, ‘I’m just talking.’
The plan will get more low income people online, where they will listen to Internet radio more often
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s latest statistics indicate that about 35 percent of all households have no broadband access at home, and over 30 percent of Americans don’t use the Internet at all. Other surveys suggest that it’s a little more complicated than this, in that lots of low income folks cobble together broadband use via the computers of neighbors and libraries. And a Pew Internet and American Life report notes that lots of minorities get their Internet from their mobile phones.
While the National Broadband Plan isn’t going to suggest a South Korea or Australian massive subsidy solution to the digital divide, it will urge Congress to require all Universal Service Fund phone service providers to offer broadband within a given time frame, it will recommend that the USF’s Lifeline program subsidize low income broadband use, it will recommend that Congress support some kind of free or low cost wireless service, and it will offer a myriad of other ways to boost Internet adoption from the bottom up.
This is going to bring more people into cyberspace on a regular basis, especially low income people who currently make up a huge constituency for broadcast radio (and much of its advertising base). They’ll change the nature of the Internet radio, which currently plays to a more middle class audience.
The plan will boost mobile radio
A big focus of the National Broadband Plan will be about getting more spectrum to the wireless industry, which is facing a huge crunch as smartphone adoption and use goes through the roof. FCC Chair Julius Genachowski has already pledged to get about 500 MHz of license spectrum moved over in various ways to wireless broadband providers. The plan is to create a “Mobile Future Auction,” in Genachowski’s words “an auction permitting existing spectrum licensees, such as television broadcasters in spectrum-starved markets, to voluntarily relinquish spectrum in exchange for a share of auction proceeds, and allow spectrum sharing and other spectrum efficiency measures.”
This is not going to be a smooth transition. The TV broadcasters have already made it very clear that they’re quite leery about this proposal. And even the FCC’s efforts to transition much smaller bands like the Wireless Communications Service region to WiMAX have met with fierce opposition from WCS’s spectrum neighbor, Sirius XM satellite radio.
But as powerful as the National Association of Broadcasters is, if it puts up a full court defense against this trajectory, it’s going to find itself in combat with the wireless industry—without question the most sophisticated communications lobby in Washington, D.C.—and allied with the device manufacturers and to some extent the cable industry, which already regularly does battle with the broadcasters over retransmission consent issues.
Slowly but surely, if only one TV station after another, the spectrum is going to move from the broadcasters to the wireless companies.
What does this mean? It hopefully means faster mobile broadband speeds and lower prices. The wireless industry has a much better record at providing progressively cheaper and better services than cable. That, again, has got to be a boon to Internet radio, which will find itself broadcasting to a progressively larger and more diverse base.
The migration to digital will deconsolidate broadcast radio
It seems likely that traditional over-the-air television broadcasting will fade over the next decade. More and more Americans will watch TV via cable or telco provided optical fiber or IP video. The value of TV licenses will decline and the power of the entities that own them will decline as well. Many of those entities also own conventional broadcast radio stations. Gradually cut loose and allowed to operate on their own or in small networks, these entities could find their rebirth by providing the kind of brick-and-mortal localism that has eluded the Internet so far. It could be that, in the long run, the Internet will be the best thing that could happen to plain old analog broadcast radio.
But again, we’re just talking here. The future is hard to see. One thing I really regret, though, is how little radio fits into policy discussions about broadband. I hope you’ll take a moment to comment on my speculations and ideas.
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