Photo: chidorian via Flickr
Silicon Valley is a libertarian kind of place.So it was a little startling to hear a group of high-profile investors and entrepreneurs like Ron Conway, Jeff Jordan (OpenTable and Andreessen-Horowitz) and Jeff Lawson (Twilio) advocate for a new law that would encourage TV broadcasters to auction their piece of the wireless spectrum off to wireless data providers.
Here’s the problem, as explained by FCC Chairman Julian Julius Genachowski.
Typical smartphone usage sucks up 24 times as much data as old feature phones, and tablets up to 120 times as much. But there’s only so much wireless spectrum available for that data — and a huge swath of it is being taken up by over-the-air TV broadcasters.
The law championed by the Obama administration proposes “incentive auctions” which would encourage broadcasters to let the government auction off their spectrum. In turn, they’d get a share of the proceeds.
Conway said that he talked to Genachowski about the problem a few weeks ago and became obsessed enough to draft a letter to Congress about it. He encouraged the audience of about 100 entrepreneurs to sign their own copy and send it to their representatives.
Well over half of Conway’s new investments are in the mobile space — up from 2% just five years ago — and running out of space for data would be “catastrophic” for that part of his portfolio. “There’s not a prayer of us letting that happen.”
So who are the bad guys standing in the way?
Mostly local TV stations, who are concerned that they’d be forced to switch channels, which would make it harder for viewers to find them. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), who represents these broadcasters, recently claimed that the spectrum auction would kick 210 TV channels off the air. The NAB wants to make sure that the auctions are “entirely voluntary.”
The law seems on track to pass in some form — it recently got out of a Senate committee with a bipartisan vote of 21-4.
But if the government-mandated switch from analogue to digital TV signals is any guide, even if the law passes, it could be years before it’s actually enforced. That law took almost a decade to go into effect.
As mobile data usage skyrockets, a lot of Silicon Valley would argue that we don’t have that long this time.
The event where Genachowski and Conway spoke was sponsored by CALInnovates, an advocacy group focused mostly on the technology industry, along with Founders Den and Conway’s SV Angel.