Nine companies will compete while sharing responsibilities and data.
You know those T-ball games for very young children where everyone is declared a winner and everyone takes home a trophy?
Keep that in mind for a few minutes.
The FCC, as our readers know by now, has authorized wireless TV Band Devices (TVBDs) that will operate in the “white spaces” on the TV frequency map – i.e., on TV channels that have no local TV station. Proponents, who like to call these devices “Wi-Fi on steroids,” claim they will boost the availability of wireless services with extended range, fewer dead spots, and improved speeds, promote rural broadband, aid education and medicine, and further spectrum efficiency. And create jobs. And also clear up that annoying rash.
As a condition of operation, the millions of expected TVBDs will have to avoid causing interference to active TV stations, the many wireless microphones that share the TV band, and certain TV reception sites. To do this, most will consult a complex and changing database that indicates where TVBDs can safely operate. The existence of a database in turn presupposes one or more “database administrators.” Last November, the FCC invited interested parties to submit applications for that role.
Nine companies responded. Some, like Google and Comsearch, have enormous expertise in constructing and maintaining large databases. The qualifications of some others are less obvious.
The FCC made its choice by not making a choice: It approved all nine applicants as database administrators, with the expectation they will compete among themselves for business.
This inclusive non-decision may reflect the FCC’s often-expressed distaste for “picking winners and losers.” Or it might follow from the FCC’s having neglected to state, at the outset, the criteria it would use for selection, an omission that leaves it vulnerable to challenge from the losers. This problem does not arise, of course, if there are no losers.
One applicant and a wireless microphone coalition challenged the impartiality of some other applicants. The FCC responded with a stern injunction against the administrators engaging in anti-competitive practices, and a promise of careful oversight.
Here at CommLawBlog, we have two concerns.
The FCC could have decided to manage the database itself. It certainly knows how; it keeps close track of millions of licenses. The FCC opted instead to farm out the work. With one or two administrators, that might have been a labor-saving move. But riding herd on nine of them, some inexperienced, each working with a database built to a different design, might turn out to be more work for the FCC than just doing the job on its own.
The other problem relates to data quality. Each administrator will keep its own database, but all nine must reflect the same underlying reality. Some of the data are slow-moving and should be easy to maintain – TV station contours, for example, and locations of protected TV receive sites, such as cable TV headends and TV translators. Potentially more troublesome, though, will be wireless microphone users’ frequent and changing registrations as they sign up for short-term interference protection at sporting events, political events, concerts, etc. These data will be volatile.
Suppose NBC, say, as part of its planning to cover an event, logs on to its preferred database administrator and registers a few dozen wireless microphones by date, time, place, and TV channel number. That information must be made available to every TVBD in the vicinity of the event, through every database administrator. Accordingly, the administrator receiving the registration must quickly and accurately disseminate it to the other eight, in a form that allows easy incorporation into their own, differently-designed databases. This kind of coordination is hard enough among two or three parties. We wonder whether nine can bring it off reliably.
And those nine will be competitors after the same business. It may become tempting for some to try making the others look bad by feeding them bad (or late) information. Even greater will be the temptation to cut costs by using ill-trained and badly supervised staff. Just as the hygiene of a shared kitchen quickly sinks to the level of the sloppiest person using it, so will the quality of the shared data reflect the least careful administrator. (Users may appreciate the lower cost . . . at least until they realize that you do, in fact, get what you pay for.)
To say, “You’re all winners!” is fine for T-ball. But maintaining a large and critical database takes real skill and a large measure of dedication. We may all come to wish the FCC had exercised greater adult authority in making its choices.