McDonald's WiMax? He's Lovin' It


Instead of selling most of the analog television spectrum at auction, Congress should take a cue from the advertising world: Have the FCC put one of these old channels—say, 60—into the license-free zone and auction off the naming rights instead.

Spectrum-policy geeks will have a lot to pay attention to in the next few months. At the top of the list is exactly how the “analog television giveback” gets handled. There is about 84 MHz available to be redistributed. Of that, 24 MHz is earmarked for allocation into public-safety uses (better police radios and the like.) The FCC plans to auction off rights to use the rest.

I'd like to see some portion of this auctionable spectrum devoted to making license-free services work better. Opening some spectrum (treating it like the WiFi bands at 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz) is the way to go. But how can this be done without giving up auction revenue? As we all know, the federal government is broke, and Congress sees spectrum auctions as a good way to land some fresh cash. At the same time, the public already benefits greatly from unlicensed access to WiFi, and tax receipts related to business generated on these “free” areas of spectrum (directly or indirectly) are huge.

The Next New Wireless Thing is WiMax, also known as 802.16. Like WiFi, WiMax lets users send and receive packet data without a license, but it uses radio spectrum in a manner that supports much greater range (realistically, up to 10 miles, as opposed to WiFi's 500 feet) and obstacle penetration (like cellphone service, it goes through buildings and trees).

We'll start seeing early products in the next 12 months. Experts predict the economic impact of WiMax-related business will exceed that of WiFi. Future WiMax reliability, speed and utility can be significantly enhanced, if some of the 700 MHz spectrum (which includes channel 60) goes into the license-free pool.

What Congress ought to do is instruct the FCC to sell naming rights to some of that spectrum, the way major-league teams and revenue-strapped cities make money selling off naming rights to stadiums. A federal auction should generate major-league money for the public purse while giving the public more open spectrum. Purists—open-source geeks—might choke on using “GoogleFi” or “MicrosoftFi” or “FordMax,” but, hey, the world got used to Safeco Field and the FedEx Orange Bowl. For a brand owner, an open-spectrum naming license would be national—and permanent.

The FCC hasn't set the date for its Auction 31 (of the upper 700 MHz band or old channels 60-67), but it is expected to occur this summer. Speak up! Call your congressman or the FCC.