President Obama Outlines Plan for Competitive Networks, Muni Broadband


The President’s speech yesterday in Cedar Rapids, IA called needed attention to the nation’s serious broadband problem—namely, that little to no competition exists when it comes to broadband networks. Even with a favorable net neutrality ruling from the FCC seeming imminent, the vibrancy of the Internet economy remains at risk, tethered to a few oligopoly Internet Service Providers. These ISPs have tacitly divvied up geographic markets across the country, blocking competition and offering lower speeds and higher costs than those in peer nations. Increasing competition in broadband markets won’t be accomplished overnight, but the plan the President has outlined offers some key strategies for getting competitive broadband options to cities throughout the country.

Echoing sentiments from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler earlier this year, the President called on the FCC to overrule anti-competitive laws on the books in 19 states that prevent municipalities from providing broadband networks for their citizens. These laws—typically enacted at the behest of large ISPs—provide no public benefit, instead merely shielding ISPs from competition at the expense of local choice. As cities like Chattanooga, TN, Danville, VA, and Lafayette, LA have shown, building next-generation networks helps draw startup activity and grow the local economy, in addition to providing a much needed service to residents. Free from competitive pressures, ISPs have shown little interest in building the high-speed networks that will soon be necessary to compete internationally. The President’s plan to free cities from ISP-driven bans on municipal broadband is a long-overdue step towards getting the U.S. back on track with peer nations.

The President outlined other creative measures to prompt broadband infrastructure investment, including grants for rural areas to build high-speed networks, and a program to remove regulatory red tape that slows down broadband investment. All in all, it’s heartening for the startup community to hear concrete policy proposals to fix a broadband competition problem that is getting increasingly hard to ignore. The President’s plan is a strong step towards making the U.S. a leader in broadband innovation and ensuring that entrepreneurs can continue to create good tech jobs in cities and towns across the country.

FCC Chairman Wheeler Signals Support for Title II Reclassification


Big news on net neutrality: FCC Chairman Wheeler all but confirmed today that he plans to propose a rule reclassifying the Internet as a Title II telecommunications service next month. If you’ve been following the debate over net neutrality, you know what this means. And if you haven’t, well, this is huge.

Last year, when a federal court threw out the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Rules, it essentially told the FCC to go back to the drawing board. The FCC, a federal agency, had a couple of choices: attempt to rewrite rules that would protect an open Internet using the same legal authority the Court already said wouldn’t work, or reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service under Title II. Only under that second option would the FCC have the legal authority it needs to enforce real net neutrality. Which is, of course, why the cable companies and entrenched interests hate the idea. And why we love it.

Which brings us back to today. Despite months of lobbying by net neutrality opponents, today Chairman Wheeler, in a speech at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, made his most emphatic statement to-date in favor of Title II reclassification. He told the packed room that his thinking has evolved, and while he originally believed that he could protect an open Internet using a “commercially reasonable” standard without reclassification, he’s changed his mind. Instead, he came to the conclusion—with which we agree— that "commercially reasonably" would really mean "commercially reasonable for ISPs," not the true innovators who depend on an open Internet. Chairman Wheeler also noted that the next wave of innovation would depend even more heavily on open access, particularly for innovations surrounding the Internet of Things. And with that, he signaled his support for what we have long believed is the only path forward: reclassification under Title II.

We are encouraged by the Chairman’s words today and look forward to seeing his proposal in writing early next month. But this fight is far from over. Many in Congress have promised to block any attempts at reclassification, so even with a victory at the FCC, our work here isn’t done. We promise you this, though: we’ll keep fighting on behalf of startups and their users to protect the open Internet and all that it means not just to the economy, but to all who use it. Today we got one step closer to that goal.

Success of FCC Spectrum Auction Reflects Boom in Mobile Internet Market


The FCC’s auction of new wireless spectrum—the biggest auction of its kind since 2008 —has vastly exceeded revenue expectations, surpassing $40 billion in bids as of Wednesday morning. Considering most analysts predicted that the auction would fetch somewhere between the FCC’s reserve price of $10 billion and $15 billion, the auction appears to be a resounding success.  The auction is for mid-band spectrum that carriers can use to help deploy 4G LTE networks. The success of the spectrum auction is particularly notable in light of arguments from wireless carriers in recent months that the application of net neutrality rules to wireless broadband would diminish their incentives to invest in infrastructure. Although the FCC has indicated that it is considering applying net neutrality rules to both wireless and wired broadband, carrier interest in bidding on the available spectrum surpassed all expectations.

The reason carriers are scrambling to buy up available spectrum is quite simple: consumer demand for wireless data has exploded in recent years, due to a robust market for mobile applications and services. The global market for mobile apps and advertising was worth $38 billion in 2013, up from about $6.8 billion in 2010. This latest spectrum auction shows what the FCC has described as the “virtuous cycle of innovation” at work: the more and better wireless services and applications are available to customers, the more consumers will demand sufficient capacity to use these services, and the more incentive carriers have to invest and expand their networks. Startups and entrepreneurs always find creative ways to make use of greater bandwidth and faster speeds, creating new applications to harness advances in infrastructure, further increasing consumer demand for more applications and more network capacity.

The key to all this innovation growth, of course, is robust competition and sound policy managing the finite public resource that is wireless spectrum. To ensure that the the wireless market remains competitive and innovative, the FCC and other regulators must work to promote policies that encourage wireless providers to use their spectrum efficiently and fairly, including taking steps to protect Open Internet principles in wireless networks and preserving spectrum for unlicensed use. The success of the auction is an encouraging sign for the future prospects of the US wireless market, but regulators should continue to work to ensure that sufficient spectrum is preserved for unlicensed use and not exclusively controlled by a few carriers.

In Colorado, the Future of High Speed Internet is Up to Voters


Nov. 5, 2014 Update: Boulder voters overwhelmingly approved the measure to give their city authority to create municipal internet. 

As truly high speed Internet access becomes more and more crucial for businesses and consumers, cities are stepping up to provide their citizens with the next generation fiber networks that the incumbent commercial ISPs are simply unwilling to build. But in the case of Boulder, Colorado, despite the fact that nearly 100 miles of high speed fiber already lie beneath its streets, the city is barred from investing in and expanding the network to the wider public. That’s because in Colorado, as well as in dozens of other states, prohibitive state laws—laws practically written by the large ISPs—block municipalities from building or operating competing networks.

On November 4th, voters in Boulder, as well as Yuma County in eastern Colorado, will decide whether to exempt themselves from the restrictive state law and give their cities the freedom to control the future of their own broadband infrastructure. With no vocal opponents, the referendums seem likely to pass.

For Boulder, the choice could not be more obvious. With the highest startup density and growth of any metropolitan area, the ability for Boulder to independently invest in and expand high speed Internet is integral to maintaining its ascendancy as a hotbed for new business ventures. “We’re in competition to attract and retain the highest quality employers and the highest quality talent,” said a spokesperson for Boulder Chamber of Commerce.

The law currently restricting both Boulder, and the much smaller Yuma County, from taking Internet access into their own hands—The "Competition in Utility and Entertainment Services” bill (or SB 152, as it’s commonly called)—passed in the state senate in 2005, and precludes municipal governments from providing broadband services to its citizens. Under the bill, however, a city may seek an exemption under the law and reestablish local control over broadband policy through a referendum. So far, only a few other other Colorado cities have done so. The city of Longmont, just 15 miles north of Boulder, opted out of SB 152 in 2011 and started construction in August to deploy fiber networks across the city. Its new service will be available to consumers November 3.

Just as ISPs lobbied hard to enact these anti-municipal broadband laws, they have fought equally hard against efforts to overturn them. Longmont first sought an exemption from SB 152 in 2009, but failed after telecom companies spent $192,228 to defeat the referendum, compared to only $95 from proponents of the measure. In 2011, Longmont tried again and the referendum passed, despite a record $300,000 campaign by Comcast to prevent it.

Comcast doesn’t seem to be putting money against the Boulder referendum, but has made its opposition to the measure known, writing to Boulder’s local newspaper, "Comcast does not believe that government-owned networks are a good use of municipal funds in areas where the private market is already providing services.” Yet the services they provide are not only slower and more expensive than what municipal gigabit networks pose to offer, the ISP also routinely ranks lower in customer satisfaction than any other company in the industry.

Thus, Comcast’s response isn’t surprising, especially considering its interest in maintaining near-monopoly power in the broadband market. As the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable shows, large ISPs would much rather eliminate potential rivals through acquisitions and legislative restrictions than have to face competition.

As we’ve said before, municipal broadband networks provide consumers with alternatives in markets desperately in need of competition. With the US lagging behind its industrialized peers in fiber deployment and growth, we need to use every tool possible to generate competition in broadband markets and give consumers and businesses the high-speed broadband access they need to thrive in the Internet economy.

Municipalities like Boulder deserve the right to build fiber networks for its citizens when ISPs won’t. We stand behind Colorado voters next Tuesday when they head to the polls to vote “yes.”

FCC Pauses Review of Comcast - Time Warner Merger


The FCC once again slowed down its review of the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, indefinitely pausing the comment period because certain content companies—including CBS, Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom—refused to allow commenters to access information they deemed “Highly Confidential.” Most of the information that the content companies refused to disclose relates to agreements pursuant to which Comcast gets distribution rights for their content.

This is not the first time the Commission extended the review period for the mega-merger due to poor information disclosure by the companies at issue. In the beginning of October, the FCC pushed back its deadline for accepting public comments on the merger because Comcast dumped 850 pages of long-overdue data about the merger, but somehow still failed to include adequate responses to many FCC information requests.

These tactics should come as no surprise. Comcast—the “worst company in America”—is facing significant public opposition to its proposed merger, which would make Comcast-TWC the only provider of high-speed broadband service available to nearly 40 percent of current subscribers. The combined company’s monopoly power would be even greater in the market for truly high-speed broadband (>50 Mbps download speed). Giving a single company terminating access monopoly power over half of the country’s Internet users is an obvious problem that startups and consumers both recognize.

And yet, even as Comcast continues to obfuscate and intentionally conceal important information about the merger, it boldly argues that the merger should be approved because opposing commenters “don’t cite any credible, specific facts that refute the extensive evidence” Comcast has put forward. Withholding information while chiding opponents for not citing enough information is the definition of chutzpah.

Beyond engaging in shenanigans with its information production, Comcast’s case in favor of the merger is rather weak, claiming that the combination wouldn’t be anticompetitive because Comcast and Time Warner don’t currently compete in any single market, so merging the two companies won’t give consumers any less choice. Of course, this is really just a concession that the high-speed broadband market is already anticompetitive; Comcast is essentially claiming that competition won’t decrease because there isn’t any competition. Twisted logic aside, several of the country’s leading antitrust experts wrote a letter to the FCC cogently outlining the merger's anticompetitive impact and arguing that the merger “should be blocked in its entirety because it would substantially lessen competition...and is not in the public interest.”

Even with minimal information available to evaluate the merger, it is clearly a bad deal for startups, consumers, and the economy. Allowing Comcast and Time Warner to merge would greatly decrease their incentives to build faster networks and would give the combined company immense power to discriminate against startups offering competing services. The merger is a significant threat to the continued viability of the Internet economy and should be stopped at all costs.

What We Can Learn from Rockport: On Fiber Networks and Our Economic Future


If you’re anything like me, you don’t exactly have an abundance of choice in broadband providers. In virtually every market in America, your options are limited to the local cable monopoly or the local telephone monopoly (and if we’re being realistic on what speeds are sufficiently fast to be considered “broadband,” you’re really stuck with cable). Economically, this dearth of choice comes as no surprise. High upfront investment costs make it incredibly difficult for competitors to unseat the incumbent provider, leaving that provider with the market power to charge high rates for relatively slow speeds.

Broadband markets simply aren’t competitive, and this lack of competition has caused the US to fall behind other industrialized nations in access to ultra-fast technologies like fiber, which provides symmetrical upload and download speeds many times beyond what cable can offer. Because it’s expensive to build fiber networks, and because your local broadband provider is likely the only game in town, ISPs have been reluctant to invest in fiber networks. Fiber options remain distressingly rare in America, accounting for only 8.16% of broadband connections, well behind other industrialized nations with robust tech sectors. Worse, we don’t seem to be in any hurry to catch up, as fiber connections grew only 12% in the US from 2012-2013, again lagging behind other industrialized nations.

Here’s the good news: in the absence of ISP fiber offerings, some municipalities are taking action to bring fiber to their citizens themselves. Today, Rockport, Maine, with the support of Sen. Angus King, a vocal champion of Internet access policies, launched a municipal fiber network with gigabit per second connections. That means Rockport citizens—in a town a of 3,300—can get download speeds almost 35 times faster than what I have access to in San Francisco, the supposed heart of the tech world. In doing so, Rockport joins cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has positioned itself as an emerging tech hub by installing a gigabit fiber network in 2010. Chattanooga’s fiber network has already proven attractive to businesses, with 5,000 business subscribers and an emerging startup community. Companies like Claris Networks are moving operations to Chattanooga to take advantage of the municipal network, which provides equally fast upload speeds crucial to business success.

Municipal broadband networks provide consumers with alternatives in markets desperately in need of competition. Not surprisingly, monopoly incumbent ISPs have fought hard to block municipal broadband networks, helping pass laws in 20 states preventing communities from building their own broadband networks. The telecom lobby has also worked to prevent municipalities from operating or leasing fiber networks that have already been built but lay dormant. These laws have prevented Chattanooga from expanding its fiber network, and the city filed a petition with the FCC, asking the agency to step in and preempt these anti-competitive restrictions.

Access to ultra-high-speed Internet is quickly becoming necessary for business success, and as the US continues to lag behind peer countries in fiber access, startups will soon face significant competitive disadvantages without greater access. Since telecom incumbents have been unable or unwilling to provide fiber access, towns like Rockport have stepped in to create needed competition and provide fiber to its citizens.

If we hope to stay competitive in the world economy, we need to make sure that citizens and businesses have adequate broadband access, whether through private or municipal networks. To achieve that, we need to ensure that Rockport, Chattanooga, and other forward-thinking municipalities investing in connectivity become the trend, not the exceptions, in the marketplace.

President Obama and Rise of the Rest Both Highlight Pittsburgh


We were excited to learn that this week the President traveled to Pittsburgh to celebrate innovation with a visit to TechShop -- the firm that helps entrepreneurs and inventors build low-cost prototypes of their creations. Next week, we too will be in Pittsburgh and at TechShop as part of the Rise of the Rest road trip with Steve Case.

Signalling his support for more policies that encourage entrepreneurship, the President announced three executive actions designed to support advanced manufacturing and innovation:

  • $5 billion worth of advanced equipment in federal R&D facilities will be made available to innovators and startups to develop new technologies and launch new inventions. For example, entrepreneurs may be able to access NASA’s National Center for Advanced Manufacturing to produce the high-strength, defect-free joints required for cutting-edge aeronautics, and DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for collaborative projects in additive manufacturing, composites and carbon fiber, and other leading clean energy technologies.
  • Five Federal agencies will invest more than $150 million in research to support the Materials Genome Initiative, increasing the Administration’s investment in the manufacturing of game-changing advanced materials. The aim of the The Materials Genome Initiative is to cut in half the time it takes to develop novel materials that can fuel advanced manufacturing and bolster the 21st century American economy.
  • In response to the President’s call to action, more than 90 Mayors and local leaders have committed to the ‘Mayors Maker Challenge’. The promise is to expand access to physical locations and new manufacturing and prototyping equipment, support manufacturing entrepreneurship, and inspire young people to pursue careers in manufacturing and engineering.

Just as the President and leaders across the country are recognizing “makers”, and the importance of supporting entrepreneurship, we can’t wait to celebrate what’s being built right here in America. Check out our infographic here!

Watch Steve Case tell the story of what we’re doing and join us in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Nashville, June 24-27.

In the Internet Revolution, We Can’t Afford to Leave Part of the Country Behind


This piece originally appeared in VentureBeat

Too many communities have been left behind as the Internet revolution marches on. In much of the country, communication, access to information, and business are powered by the Internet. But in areas underserved by broadband networks – where it might also be too expensive to own a personal computer – adults who went to school too long ago and have not pursued re-skilling programs, and students who do not have Internet access at home or at school, are in danger of never catching-up.

Efforts originating in the public and private sectors are trying to change this narrative, but we need to do more. The President’s ConnectED plan to reform E-Rate aims to connect 99 percent of classrooms and libraries within five years. As I’ve argued before, this program is essential for educational equality, and equality of opportunity post high-school, and it needs broader support.

On the private side, the Red Hook Initiative (in Red Hook, Brooklyn) has installed free WiFi routers at churches, schools, and other community spaces. With a complimentary program in local schools focused on leadership, employment skills, and STEM training, the initiative has empowered the community to develop services in the present, and students are also better prepared for their futures in the modern economy. With support from local and state governments, successful programs like this could be rolled out to more places where they are needed.

One model for public-private partnerships worth following is what Etsy is doing in the post-industrial community of Rockford, Illinois (at the request of the town’s mayor, Larry Morrissey), and underemployed communities in New York City. Working with local groups, Etsy has a “craft entrepreneurship” program to teach basic business and computer literacy by boosting existing craft and manufacturing skills.

According to Etsy’s site, “many low-income groups have long had craft and manufacturing skills, but are unsure of how to unlock the potential of these skills for income and wellbeing in this day and age.”

In this program, the idea of unlocking existing skills for “this day and age” is the key. While a third of Etsy sellers use the income from selling their handmade goods to cover some household expenses, and 20 percent use the money to boost their savings, this program isn’t fully about money, and it’s not about Etsy either; it’s about bringing more people into the Internet economy and empowering communities to use the Internet as a platform to better themselves and their families.

People are learning how to run a business -- even just a small one -- with marketing, photography, pricing, and growth strategy lessons; they are making the most of their existing skills; and when the course is complete they are left with an Etsy store that might just provide the supplemental income to push their family over the poverty line.

But the primary and enduring benefit of this program, and others like it, is access to the Internet economy and the pride that comes with being able to do a little more than you could yesterday. Essential connectivity and basic education lay the foundation for individuals to retake control of their careers. First it’s an Etsy store, but then maybe it’s SideCar, UberX and finally a brand new startup business.. For the wellness of our economy, and our society, more communities need access to high-speed broadband and the knowledge that will help them harness the power of the Internet. Tech should support ConnectED and then work with government to ensure universal access.

Image Credit: spirit of america/Shutterstock

No More Botched Rollouts: These Two Bills Could Change How the Government Buys Tech

No More Botched Rollouts: These Two Bills Could Change How the Government Buys Tech

Without stepping into the debate on the relative merits of Obamacare, all sides agree that the technical rollout of the site was less than ideal -- botched, some would say. And according to a number of commentators, the root cause of the problem is “the government’s habit of buying outdated, costly and buggy technology.” In other words -- the entire system of federal IT procurement. Luckily for us, there are two bills in Congress that want to revolutionize the process and improve the way government delivers services.

Solving Real Problems With The Internet

Solving Real Problems With The Internet

We use the internet every day to work, read, watch and play. But for residents of low-income neighborhoods, internet access can be useful for more than solving “first world problems”. It can mean a plan during disasters, better health, safer streets, a stronger community, and economic opportunity. The Red Hook Initiative is helping one community in Brooklyn turn things around. 

Unlicensed Spectrum Can Drive Innovation


Engine has filed a comment with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) encouraging broader allocation of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry; spectrum management is a highly technical area of public policy. We’re speaking up because innovators need spaces to develop their ideas for new technologies and devices.

Let’s take a step back. Spectrum is allocated to commercial users through one of three main methods. It’s auctioned, as is the case with most cellular voice and data airwaves. It’s assigned, a method that has fallen out of favor since the rise of the FCC auction system but had been widely used for television broadcasters. It is also opened up, allowing users to operate on the same wireless frequencies by setting standards to prevent interference. You’re probably familiar with some unlicensed standards; they include technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth, and RFID.

Why does unlicensed spectrum matter to startups? While spectrum is a public resource, it’s tightly regulated to keep different users from broadcasting on top of each other. As a result it’s also very hard to access. In addition to regulation, the FCC has raised billions of dollars from spectrum auctions over the last twenty years, and Congress in turn has prioritized bringing in money for the federal government, putting new auctions at the front of the policy agenda. While steps have been taken to free more spectrum for unlicensed use, very few new technologies have been deployed on opened frequencies.

It’s critical that government sees unlicensed spectrum as an investment in the future. Wireless policy is as much about opportunity as it is about utilization. Just as policy decisions laid the foundation for the deployment of LTE technologies, more needs to be done for innovators looking to roll out compelling point-to-point technology, internet-of-things technologies like smart grid, and even faster, more robust WiFi standards.

Spectrum management is not a zero-sum game. Allowing innovators access to more spectrum with fewer regulatory limitations won’t necessarily crowd out existing users. We will continue to work with regulators and legislators to find opportunities for innovators to make the most of this critical public resource.

Photo courtesy of Colin Howley.

Why Open Wireless?


Wireless communication has fundamentally changed the way we use technology and do business. It’s easy to take for granted the ubiquitous nature of wireless services in the United States today, especially as LTE rolls out providing more robust options. The speed with which data-hungry devices are being adopted, teamed with a limited amount of available spectrum, has led to what some call a “spectrum crunch,” contributing to problems like dropped calls and stalled downloads as well as data caps and other pricing mechanisms aimed at limiting ever-growing data consumption.

In light of these issues, Engine has joined with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and 11 other groups to support the Open Wireless Movement, a coalition of advocates, companies, organizations, and technologists working to develop wireless technologies and to encourage internet openness. Strengthening the wireless ecosystem isn’t just about bad service on your iPhone or poaching your neighbor’s WiFi; effective, efficient, and secure wireless communication options will propel future innovation and economic growth.

The Open Wireless Movement is about more than wireless hotspots. It links service providers, businesses, and engineers to develop networks around the country that are free, secure, and reliable for everyone. By emphasizing the benefits of sharing, we aim to create new ways of thinking about the wireless ecosystem.

Now you might say, “The Federal Communications Commission is planning new spectrum auctions in the next few years. What’s the problem?”

Even with new blocks of spectrum up for auction, the demand for wireless data is projected to continue to grow rapidly. If we don’t change the way we approach spectrum through public policy and private deployment, we will limit opportunities for startups to create new products by harnessing wireless technologies.

Doing so will require not just forward-thinking policies, but a move toward open and shared technologies. Focusing on -- and increasing the success of -- unlicensed technologies like Bluetooth, WiFi, and RFID will be central to our success. These technologies have empowered innovators to experiment with and build low-cost, reliable devices and protocols that have led to the rise of successful segments of the technology ecosystem.

New auctions ought to continue the FCC’s track record of creating fair markets for commercial-use spectrum for wireless carriers. These auctions should increase their focus on access to spectrum for small and regional wireless companies that can push innovation in local communities.

We must also recognize that the use of auctions and unlicensed technologies is not a zero-sum game. WiFi and carrier-owned spectrum have proven to be exceptional complements. Moves to marginalize unlicensed spectrum allocations or artificially increase auction prices harm consumers, innovators, and businesses. Recommendations made by the White House in July that the federal government share some of its spectrum with commercial users may increase our access to the public resource, opening the door to even more technologies that will push innovation forward.

The Open Wireless Movement is one step in a broader rethink of how we access the internet. Engine is excited to be on board and we encourage you to read more about the project, learn how you can promote the cause, volunteer to help engineer new wireless solutions, or get updated on how to make your wireless network part of the movement.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

FCC Auction Rules to Impact Startups


Startups should keep an eye on the launch of the incentive auction system which the Federal Communications Commission will address in its open hearing Friday. The FCC, the independent government agency charged with oversight of communications technologies, is reconvening after the usual summer lull in Washington. The agency is tackling issues startups should monitor, including rules for new spectrum auctions.

Startups are generally less concerned as to how spectrum is made available than with how quickly it is made available. The importance of the airwaves to entrepreneurs is clear; wireless communication has propelled the growth of a new segment of the economy with the introduction of smartphones and tablets. The sooner more spectrum can be made available, the sooner more new companies can develop products and services for customers.

The FCC auctions airwaves for exclusive use by companies like AT&T and Verizon. It also opens them to “unlicensed” use which allows innovators to create technologies on particular frequency sets. Incentive auctions function by relocating television broadcasters to shared or unused channels to open new swaths of LTE-capable spectrum. This move, however, may squeeze frequencies approved for unlicensed technologies between television channels that are called white spaces.

Rulemakings introduced by the FCC starting Friday will impact three areas critical to innovation:

  • Sharing spectrum with government users. The FCC is moving forward with a plan to allow commercial and government entities to share the same airwaves, increasing the amount of available spectrum for innovative applications.
  • Incentive auction rules. A rulemaking has been proposed that will address the incentive auction system. Auctions are complex and rule-driven. Any tweaks may protect or endanger unlicensed spectrum proposed for open use by innovators and startups.
  • Satellite spectrum regulation. The commission is considering a rulemaking to reduce the regulatory burden on satellite services with the goal of encouraging the development of new consumer satellite communications technologies.

The FCC is aware of startups concerns. We asked FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski during a September 11 Twitter town hall about the

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commission’s plans to boost startups. Genachowski pointed to the incentive auction plan to create a nationwide band of unlicensed spectrum for experimentation as a critical step in innovation and entrepreneurship in the wireless ecosystem.

Engine will continue to follow the FCC moves as it builds toward an entirely new auction system. We encourage the commission continues to recognize the importance of startups and to listen to entrepreneurs and makers of disruptive technologies as they consider new rules.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

FCC Report: More Americans Have Access to Broadband

Broadband Map

The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday that more Americans are connected to broadband, signaling an important step forward for startups and small businesses across the country. The commission released its Eighth Broadband Progress Report -- a congressionally-mandated overview of expansion of broadband -- that reported about 19 million people lack broadband access, seven million fewer than in its 2011 overview.


While Google Fiber gigabit speeds in Kansas City have grabbed headlines in recent weeks, vast areas of the United States lack access to adequate internet services. Rural communities in particular are cut off from communications infrastructure, limiting entrepreneurial opportunities for web-based businesses in these areas.

Broadband is the most basic tool startups require to succeed. Whether a young company is developing ground-breaking software, creating the next best-selling video game, or simply setting up an online storefront, businesses need connection speeds that support the services they need.

Inadequate dial-up or expensive satellite link services are the only options in many areas, limiting the connectivity of current devices. Economically, many far-flung communities are difficult to connect for telecoms, as they offer little or no return on investment. The economic stimulus passed by Congress in 2009 allocated billions of dollars to alleviate this pressure, but administrative requirements and the seasonal nature of construction has hindered the deployment of internet services to neighborhoods and homes.

The report is good news, but more needs to be done to connect the 19 million Americans cut off from broadband opportunity. Engine will continue to advocate for innovative strategies to close the broadband gap, including TV white spaces, subsidy reform, and municipal fiber. There isn’t one simple solution for closing the broadband gap, but these tools are available to policymakers and should be explored and tested.

Image via

White House Council Recommends New Approach to Spectrum


A group of advisors urged President Obama to take take new steps to open federally-controlled spectrum for commercial applications on July 20. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology -- a group that includes administration technologists, academics, and executives of technology companies -- recommended the President direct the government to share underutilized spectrum allocated to a variety of federal agencies.

“Shared spectrum” combines elements of the exclusive license system and unlicensed regimes. While the government may need to use spectrum to communicate with drones or operate radar in some areas, in others the spectrum is fallow. The new system would allow for the development of new devices on these chunks of underutilized airwaves.

The report emphasizes the ability of policymakers to shift the present spectrum crunch “from scarcity to abundance.” This theme is meant to convey the opportunity shared spectrum provides in alleviating the demand for wireless services. I wrote about this subject ahead of an event on unlicensed spectrum co-hosted by Engine a few weeks ago.

Spectrum is one of the most important public assets innovative companies can harness to create disruptive new products. Wireless device use has exploded in the last decade with the development of WiFi and the expansion of mobile technologies that drive the advancement of smartphones, tablets, and other consumer wireless services. Startups play a critical role in the wireless ecosystem, developing applications that maximize the value of these services to users and creating new devices for consumers and enterprises.

Spectrum ownership and regulation have evolved over the last decade. While wireless providers have become increasingly consolidated -- the Justice Department deemed there to be only four “national” carriers in its move to block AT&T’s purchase of T-Mobile in 2011 -- technologies allowing various users to share airwaves have advanced rapidly. These developments have elicited calls for regulators to accommodate innovative technologies while freeing more and more spectrum for wireless carriers, agendas that haven’t always worked well together.

The advisors recommend increased incentives to open the public airwaves for experimentation, noting that the process of moving incumbent users and organizing auctions for wireless carriers is “unsustainable.” Clearing the spectrum occupied by federal agencies has proven to be a painstaking process. Allowing federal and commercial users to harness software-defined radios and other technologies could bring more spectrum to startups faster.

Innovative technologies certainly offer the promise of a freer wireless future but obstacles remain. As the Wireless Innovation Alliance said in a press release, “The PCAST report is an important first step, but there is more work to be done in order to ensure more efficient use and expanded access to the nation’s spectrum resources.”

An encouraging aspect of the recommendations is the intent to let innovation, not incumbents, drive the future wireless landscape. Wireless carriers play a critical role in connecting users, businesses, and entrepreneurs, but they don’t play the only role. Striking the appropriate policy balance is challenging, but a generation of innovators is waiting for new spectral resources to open.

Image: The White House

Congress, FCC, New America Foundation Focus on Broadband


Broadband plays a critical role in economic development and opportunity around the world. The United States, however, lags behind other countries in terms of the number of citizens reached by internet infrastructure. The U.S. ranks fifteenth out of 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in wired broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants, according to December 2011 data.

“The freedom and openness of the Internet has enabled small businesses in dorm rooms and garages to grow into some of the most successful companies in the world,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski told Congress in a hearing July 18. Genachowski testified before the U.S. House Committee on Small Business about the commission’s ongoing efforts to encourage innovation and investment in broadband along with other administration officials from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Department of Agriculture.

Genachowski’s testimony comes during a week in which broadband is at the forefront in Washington, D.C. July 19, the FCC released its second report on consumer broadband performance in the U.S. The same day, the New America Foundation released a report entitled, “The Cost of Connectivity” comparing the cost of broadband in 25 cities around the world.

In recent years the FCC has significantly reformed rules and programs in an effort to expand broadband penetration across the United States. One of the most wide-reaching, the overhaul of the Universal Service Fund, aims to encourage deployments of high-speed internet access to underserved communities. Other moves, including the commission’s net neutrality rules, seek to maintain the openness of the internet and preserve the system that has facilitated some of the world’s most dynamic companies.

Competitive broadband markets, open internet protocols, and the speed of internet services make a big difference for startups. Competition creates incentives for providers to keep prices low, while high speeds create opportunities for consumers to harness products and services offered by innovative, young companies. Openness ensures a level playing field for internet platforms. Closing the broadband gap will create opportunities in communities that lack adequate broadband speeds across the U.S.

The New America Foundation report also takes a look at competition in other countries. Using Paris as a case study, researchers illustrate the impact of an “unbundling” policy undertaken in France to introduce competition to the state-owned monopoly France Telecom. New companies created competition and were able to offer services on the existing DSL infrastructure which brought down costs. Twelve years later, companies are laying new cables to “meet growing demand for faster speeds at low prices,” according to the report.

Startups aren’t limited to big cities like New York and San Francisco, a fact that was highlighted by Engine at Startup Day on the Hill last month. Broadband provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to innovate and opens access to customers across the country and around the world. Efforts like those undertaken by Google in Kansas City to deploy next-generation fiber demonstrate the potential of even further advances in broadband technology boosting small business and startups.

Image by BigRiz via Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license

Unlicensed Spectrum Offers Innovation Opportunities for Startups


Next week, Engine will cohost “The Power and Potential of the Unlicensed Economy,” an event focused on unlicensed wireless technologies. While immigration and financial regulation have dominated stories over the last year about startup-focused legislation in Washington, new laws and proposed spectrum regulation may have a revolutionary effect on growth in the mobile device and application ecosystem.

As the four national carriers in the United States battle it out over download speeds and 3G versus 4G service, unlicensed technology has quietly carried the burden of the data services that many startups have harnessed to offer new products. For example, 47 percent of iPhone data traffic and 91 percent of iPad data traffic was observed to have been transmitted over WiFi networks (as opposed to 3G and EDGE networks), according to ComScore data cited in a November 2011 Yochai Benkler working paper

The Federal Communications Commission employs a variety of regulatory tools to prevent interference between spectrum users. The most prominent regulatory regime for smartphone users, in terms of cost, utilizes licenses that provide exclusive rights to spectrum in a given geographic area. These licenses are bid on in FCC auctions that have generated about $55 billion in revenue to the Treasury since their inception in the early 1990’s. Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon control most of these licenses, charging users a monthly fee to access their airwaves.

Unlicensed regulation flips this regime. Users can access a given band of spectrum in any place, assuming their devices follow particular technical standards and don’t overload the available bandwidth. WiFi is an example of a pervasive unlicensed technology; anyone with a WiFi compliant radio can access a hotspot anywhere in the U.S., so long as the number of users doesn’t overload the network. The same holds true for the airwaves that facilitate transmission between baby monitors, garage door openers, and RFID chips in ID badges and in mobile tap-to-pay cards and devices.

So why do these regulatory approaches matter to startups? You may have heard about the spectrum crunch in which the available bandwidth for users is outpaced by the demand for airwaves. While the demand glut for data services is a reality, there is spectrum that could be used by device manufacturers and carriers. The catch? The FCC, incumbent spectrum licensees, and other government agencies have to find ways to open more of these airwaves for new commercial applications.

Two approaches have been introduced this year to address the problem. One, called TV white spaces, allows devices to operate in the gaps of spectrum between the broadcast channels used by over-the-air television stations. The project was preserved by provisions of payroll tax legislation signed by President Obama in February. The second, proposed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in March, aims to allow commercial users to share spectrum with government transmitters such as the Defense Department and Coast Guard. Both approaches rely on the rise of software-defined radios and other new technologies which employ technological solutions to avoid interference with other transmitters. New, innovative wireless devices may face barriers getting old technology and incumbent users to cooperate.

White spaces applications face geographic challenges. Television broadcasters can crowd more than half of the 49 available full-power channels available in some metro markets covering multiple cities (i.e.: San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland). New FCC auctions that will allow broadcasters to relinquish some or all of their bandwidth in exchange for portions of auction revenue could also limit the available white spaces spectrum. These factors, teamed with rules to protect broadcasters from interference, may limit the success of potential urban “super WiFi” deployments that have been touted by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.


The spectrum sharing proposal may face challenges in working with government spectrum users. The DOD, for example, employs a variety of spectrum across the country for different purposes, ranging from communication with drones to conventional radio. This leaves some federal users with little incentive to begin sharing spectrum with new devices that might disrupt critical military and government technologies.

With such a crowded playing field, startups need to be keenly aware of how the federal government is regulating spectrum. The impact of regulation will be vast. Even if this technology doesn’t reach the hands of consumers, opportunities to develop enterprise applications for logistics, fleet management, and smart grid are just a few examples of the potential opportunities for innovators to build products on reliable, free-to-access airwaves.

Engine aims to advance the debate on wireless regulation next week. We invite you to attend the event if you’re in the area or watch the live stream.