CES: Julius Genachowski says FCC will free up spectrum for Wi-Fi

FCC chair interrupted by protestors, addresses censorship, auctions

In his appreciative introduction of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski at the Consumer Electronics Show Wednesday, Consumer Electronics Assn. topper Gary Shapiro dubbed Genachowski “the Spectrum Chairman” for his tireless efforts to free spectrum for new uses.

Moments later Genachowski earned the moniker all over again, announcing that the FCC is moving next month to free up “a substantial amount” of spectrum for Wi-Fi with the aim of improving speed and relieving congestion.

“We’ve talked a lot about the spectrum crunch, and the focus has really been on the mobile spectrum crunch and licensed spectrum,” said the chairman. “There’s also a Wi-Fi traffic jam. When you see what’s going on the floor and you see how much more video wants to travel over Wi-Fi networks you realize we’ve got to do something about this.”

The CES aud was mostly delighted but a protester then interrupted the onstage Q&A, shouting about safety issues and the risk of cancer from EM radiation. The protester refused to stop and submit questions in writing, and was still shouting when security pulled him from the room.

“It’s time to move,” continued Genachowski after the interruption, saying the FCC would address problems as it goes. “We don’t want to wait until we’ve worked out every problem to say ‘now we’ve done it,’ Wi-Fi is such an integral part of our broadband ecosystem, wired and wireless, that we have to make sure we’re paying sufficient attention to that as well.” He said the new 5 Ghz spectrum, now used exclusively by government agencies, would increase Wi-Fi spectrum by some 35% and permit gigabit Wi-Fi.

Genachowski also addressed the planned incentive auctions for broadcasters’ spectrum, saying that after initial resistance from the National Assn. of Broadcasters, more and more broadcasters are taking another look at the auctions. “I don’t think it’s a surprise that broadcasters who aren’t interested in tendering their spectrum, and that was always expected as part of this, would rather not have any of this happen,” said Genachowski, “But the fact is, we need to do this for our country.”

He went on to say that while he expected that at the end of the process there would be fewer broadcasting stations, he said “there will still be a broadcasting industry” and there will still be separation between stations — though there will likely be some reorganizing to help assemble contiguous blocks of such “white space” and other spectrum for new uses. He also said the FCC is eager to help broadcasters reach their audiences on new platforms.

“We have to get this right. The rest of the world is watching us, too. We have to get this right for our global competitiveness,” said Genachowski. “They think about gigabits, not megabits, in other countries. We need more of that here.”

Another major topic in Shapiro’s annual exchange with the chairman was Internet freedom. Shapiro said that he serves on a government committee on the issue and has been happy with U.S. efforts to prevent government control of the Internet.

“I’ve never seen the country so united on an issue, yet we’re a minority in the rest of the world,” he said, adding the U.S. is losing the battle.

Genachowski said, “I see two dangerous trends coming together in a way we have to be really focused on in the U.S. One is a censorship trend, as countries around the world that don’t believe in freedom realize open communications networks are a challenge for them.”

“The other trend is we’re seeing Internet providers outside the U.S., including Europe, that want to solve their business model challenges by changing the business model of the Internet. To the credit of the ISPs in the United States, they have not taken that position, but overseas that’s not the case. You see ISPs in Europe and other places arguing for fundamental changes in the Internet. These two things together make the challenge greater than any one of them would be. That’s why it’s so important we stay bipartisan on this. Because these challenges are not going to go away, they’re just not.” He warned that some countries may choose to take themselves off the grid and Balkanize themselves.

Shapiro raised the prospect of an “Internet spring” where consumers revolt in the face of new Internet censorship. Genachowski agreed that could happen some day. “The world’s citizens and consumers aren’t going to sit by if the Internet becomes Balkanized and shuts down. That’s not going to happen. This is a fight where if we fight hard enough we’ll win.”