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Washington Post Story Demonstrates the Perils of Understanding Wi-Fi Developments Through Mainstream Newspapers

Drew Clark



February 5, 2013 - Now that I've had a chance to read the front-page Washington Post story on so-called "Super Wi-Fi," I have to confess to being extremely disappointed in the Post.

Like many others, I was taken in on an allegedly new development repackaged in an exaggerated fashion. It is another re-affirmation for me that the mainstream media is no longer up to coverage of important telecommunications-related events. In some cases, this is not the fault of the reporters, who are hard-working individuals trying to "advance" their story in substantive and newsworthy ways. What they are up against, is the medium in which they are operating: the general-purpose newspaper.

To get a story on the front page of a major metropolitan newspaper, it has to be sufficiently free of technology jargon. Unfortunately, the careful use of technology jargon is what helps explain -- to those who do follow telecom- and broadband-related matters -- what really is the "news" of the matter.

The Washington Post's story was really all about the "white spaces" issue. This is the proposal, talked about and considered in various forms by the Federal Communications Commission for more than half-a-decade, that would allow for the transmission of broadband information in the radio frequencies that are occupied, but not being used, by television broadcasters. Here's a story explaining the concept, as of about five years ago: "FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's Excellent Silicon Valley Wi-Fi Adventure."

There are some positives to the white spaces concept: potentially offering unlicensed airwaves for innovators to make use of, free of charge. But there are also some negatives: one cannot create a nationwide band for broadband communications. These are the nationwide swaths of spectrum generally used by wireless providers for today's 3G and 4G networks.

More significantly, the larger narrative now (versus five years ago) are the FCC's moves to create an "incentive auction," or a plan to get television broadcasters to vacate the valuable wireless frequencies. At the Consumer Electronics Show last month, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski highlighted the value of getting broadcasters to vacate and re-auction most (but not all) of the spectrum.

This auction, which the FCC is planning to conduct by 2014, has made the "white spaces" controversy seem more distant. And while the Post's piece was apparently driven by new comments in either the proceeding affecting the "white spaces" matter or the proposal for an "incentive auction," whether or which one of these is the case has been lost in the oversimplification of the subject matter by The Post.

Among the debunkers worth reading:

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