Category: Technology and Regulation

The long wait is finally over. Federal vouchers are coming!

Before you get too excited, however, I have to inform you that the vouchers are not for education. You can’t use these vouchers to send your child to the school of your choice.

Instead, because of the government-mandated switch for broadcast TV from analog to digital bandwidths, set for Feb. 17, 2009, upwards of 20 million television sets will be obsolete, only able to receive the then-defunct analog signals.

“To avoid a consumer revolt, Congress has set aside about $1.5 billion to smooth the transition. Owners of outmoded TV sets will be eligible for two vouchers, worth $40 each, to help buy converter boxes that will enable today’s analog TV sets to receive digital signals,” Fortune magazine reports.

The government argues that the move will open up huge new areas of bandwidth for greater technical innovation and delivery. Once broadcast TV is moved to the digital spectrum, the old analog bandwidths will be auctioned off, and the government stands to make a pretty penny on the deal. “The sale of this valuable, scarce real estate is expected to bring in about $10 billion, maybe more. That will help reduce the federal budget deficit,” writes Marc Gunther.

Of course, those companies buying up the newly-opened space will be better off too: “With the new auction, we will finally become a broadband nation,” says Blair Levin, a Washington analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. “Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Intel, Dell — these companies will all benefit. The more broadband pipes you have, the more applications will come along, the more often you will upgrade your device.”

The interesting thing about these digital tuner vouchers is that one argument for their issue is that the poor will be disproportionately affected by the switch. Gunther writes, “But for consumers with one of those 70 million sets — many of whom are likely to be poor, elderly or uneducated, being forcibly switched from one technology to another will be a nightmare.”

Gunther goes on to describe the “nightmare scenario,” in which “people who depend on free, over-the-air TV for news and entertainment will lose their access, or have to pay more for it, so that the rest of us can get faster service on our Blackberries and ESPN on our cell phones.”

Last I checked, news and weather information on which people depend is still freely available over the radio. And maybe some of us would be better off with less access to TV. AC Nielsen reports (PDF) that “During the 2004-05 TV season (which started September 20, 2004 and just ended September 18, 2005), the average household in the U.S. tuned into television an average of 8 hours and 11 minutes per day.”

We’ve all heard the stories about families on federal assistance in the inner city with big screen TVs, or living in trailer parks with satellite dishes. Nowadays, Marx might say that TV is the opiate of the people rather than religion, or better yet, that TV has become the religion of the people.
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Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
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The US government is getting set to open up a set of airwave frequencies, vacating the prime estate for obscure channels that will serve its purposes just as well. In addition, the newly available channels will provide a big boost to the capabilities of current wireless telecom providers.

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645)

As Gene J. Koprowski writes for UPI, “It’s something like an eminent-domain case — except this time, the government is vacating the space in order to further the technology economy, rather than the reverse.” We might call it something like “common” or “conventional” domain. Wikipedia traces the origin of the term eminent domain as “derived in the mid-19th Century from a legal treatise written by the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius in 1625.” Grotius (1583-1645) was a Remonstrant natural-law theorist.

“With 90 megahertz of additional spectrum, today’s cellular carriers will be tomorrow’s next-generation broadband providers,” Michael D. Gallagher, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information, said in a statement. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, says the channels are to be used for “advanced wireless services.”

The cost of the move is estimated to be around $936 million, which is actually well under previous industry predictions, and will be paid for by the proceeds from the auction of the channels. “We found a way to open up a ‘beach front’ spectrum for key economic activity without jeopardizing our national security,” Gallagher said.

The move follows successful lobbying by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). TIA President Matthew J. Flanigan said in a press release, “The passage of the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act last year and today’s report by NTIA are important steps in accelerating the deployment of advanced wireless services. Auction proceeds will create billions of dollars of capital investments and increase job growth in the United States.”

All in all, the move looks to be a positive one for economic development in the quickly growing field of wireless communication. And its noteworthy that the government is using its sovereign power to serve the interests of private enterprise rather than jealously guarding its own previously acquired “territory” (although it will look to turn a tidy profit from the sale of the newly opened airwaves).

HT: Slashdot

Blog author: jballor
Monday, January 2, 2006
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As the newly-burgeoning field of space tourism takes the first steps towards reality, elements of the federal government are already pushing for stringent regulation. In a 60 Minutes report last night, the Ansari X Prize, “an extraordinary competition created in 1996 to stimulate private investment in space,” has spawned the new space race. This new field is “a race among private companies and billionaire entrepreneurs to carry paying passengers into space and to kick-start a new industry, astro tourism.”

Space: The Final Frontier

Part of the X Prize credo states the following: “We believe that spaceflight should be open to all — not just an elite cadre of government employees or the ultra-rich. We believe that commercial forces will bring spaceflight into a publicly affordable range.” I have argued previously that the developments in space travel should be recognized by Christians as a confirmation of “the significance of our solar system as a responsibility and blessing for human stewardship.”

Out of recognition of the possibilities for human flourishing represented by private spaceflight, Wired News reports about legislation that was made law last year, allowing the industry to develop “without too much government interference prohibits the Federal Aviation Administration from issuing safety regulations for passengers and crew for eight years, unless specific design features or operating practices cause a serious or fatal injury.”

The idea is essentially the opposite of some applications of the so-called precautionary principle, the idea that something must be proven to be safe before the public can make use of it. The FAA acknowledges that the instituted law instead gives the regulatory body an “informed consent” role to “encourage, facilitate, and promote” private space travel in a way that emphasizes safety. According to newly proposed regulations, “This means that the FAA has to wait for harm to occur or almost occur before it can impose restrictions, even against foreseeable harm. Instead, Congress requires that space flight participants be informed of the risks.”

This set of proposed FAA regulations (PDF) was released last Thursday, comprising what appear to be advisory regulations intended to provide information to the purveyors and consumers of space travel. According to the document summary, “The requirements are designed to provide an acceptable level of safety to the general public, and to notify individuals on board of the risks associated with a launch or reentry.”

Comments about the proposed regulations can be submitted until February 27, 2006. Given the eight-year window referred to in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, it seems that even if these regulations are set by the June 23, 2006 deadline, they would not go into effect until 2012.

On another note, G4 (the videogame TV network) has added reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation to its schedule, beginning with an 8-hour marathon on January 8.

A new UN report examines the “digital divide” in developing countries and concludes that the “gaps are still far too wide and the catching-up far too uneven for the promise of a truly global information society.” Stephen Grabill examines the issue and the role that civil society plays in enabling access to information technology.

Read the full commentary here.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has taken another step forward with the announcement of an agreement with the State of New Mexico:

Virgin Galactic, the British company created by entrepreneur Richard Branson to send tourists into space, and New Mexico announced an agreement Tuesday for the state to build a $225 million spaceport. Virgin Galactic also revealed that up to 38,000 people from 126 countries have paid a deposit for a seat on one of its manned commercial flights, including a core group of 100 “founders” who have paid the initial $200,000 cost of a flight upfront. Virgin Galactic is planning to begin flights in late 2008 or early 2009.

It all sounds very cool, although one might quibble with New Mexico’s decision to use taxpayer funds to build a spaceport for Mr. Branson.

Nevertheless, the preliminary details of the plan sound pretty cool:

Virgin Galactic said it had chosen New Mexico as the site for its headquarters because of its steady climate, free airspace, low population density and high altitude. All those factors can significantly reduce the cost of the space flight program.

The spaceport, to be located some 25 miles south of the town of Truth or Consequences, will be constructed 90 percent underground, with just the runway and supporting structures above ground.

An underground spaceport? Near a town called Truth or Consequences? It’s like something out of James Bond…

Richard Branson, circa 2018?

Update: Come to think of it, there may be a slight resemblance there… (more…)

I wrote previously about the result of the recent world information summit that resulted in ICANN’s continuing governance over Internet domain registration worldwide. Fast Company Now provides us a link to the letter from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez that may have precipitated the détente. Among the salient features of the letter:

  • The contention that “support for the present structures for Internet governance is vital. These structures have proven to be a reliable foundation for the robust growth of the Internet we have seen over the course of the last decade.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • “Burdensome, bureaucratic oversight” (read UN involvement) “is out of place in an Internet structure that has worked so well for many around the globe.”
  • An emphasis on non-governmental solutions: “The history of the Internet’s extraordinary growth and adaptation, based on private-sector innovation and investment, offers compelling arguments against burdening the network with a new intergovernmental structure for oversight. It also suggests that a new intergovernmental structure would most likely become an obstacle to global Internet access for all our citizens.”

The tone of the letter is rather unyielding (principled, perhaps?) in the face of complaints against ICANN (and implicitly American) dominance over Internet administration. I find the arguments rather compelling, especially given that ICANN seems to be responsive to global concerns.

For example, a new Internet domain for the European Union opened up this past Wednesday. This will allow interested parties to register with the new “.eu” suffix instead of having to choose from country-specific codes, such as “.uk” or “.fr”, or other generic options, “.com” and “.net”.

So ICANN is listening to the EU, even if the push for the new domain isn’t a grassroots campaign. The question is whether Europeans actually desire a “.eu” domain name: “Some business groups are uncertain how popular it will be. Europeans have an EU flag, an EU passport and an EU anthem but many have a lukewarm attitude to European integration —as French and Dutch ‘no’ votes to a new constitution showed this year.” I don’t think a “.na” (North America) domain would be that popular for Canadians and Americans, for instance.

I wonder what’s on C-SPAN tonite.

An interesting piece today by George Will, outlining what he calls a new government entitlement program that is being batted around the House and Senate: $990 million (according to the House) or $3 billion (according to the Senate) to subsidize digital converters for television sets. The idea is that by 2009, analog transmission will be a thing of the past, and even though most households by that time will already have digital televisions, our beneficient leaders consider it their responsibility to ensure us that no one is left out in the analog cold. Apparently, the question of personal initiative in this matter is not an issue.

…today’s up-to-date conservatism does not stand idly by expecting people to actually pursue happiness on their own…Given that the transition to digital has been under way for almost a decade, why should those who have adjusted be compelled to pay money to those who have chosen not to adjust?

But leaving the questions of inititative and subsidies aside–whether or not the government ought to be spending money to, in effect, make consumer decisions for us–what makes Congress think this particular sector of the market–televisions–has anything to do with their legislative responsibilities? Who am I, a faithful taxpayer, paying to sit around and write up these plans? Then again, the primary tool of Orwell’s Big Brother was the television screen.

So if these plans pass, twenty-five years after 1984 we can rest assured that Big Brother will be safeguarding all our entertainment needs. Unless, like one scholar around the corner from me at Acton, you hope to be rid of your television by that time anyway.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, December 2, 2005
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As much as I would love to have the choice to pick what channels I pay for and receive over cable individually, I think Arnold Kling is right: The FCC shouldn’t force cable companies to offer that option. He says, “With some phone companies threatening to get into the TV business through their fiber-optic cables, this point may become moot. It could be that in a competitive market, unbundling will occur naturally. There is absolutely no reason for the FCC to inject itself into cable TV pricing in this way.”

I think there is a good chance that the delivery of information to homes in the US will be opened up in radical new ways in the coming years, which will only increase competition in these types of areas, similar to what is happening with VOIP and cell phones with respect to telephone landlines. If TV over the internet becomes a reality, and I can get internet access through my power lines, cable companies will be forced to make their services more customer-friendly.

It’s a strange quirk, for example, that I get ESPN2 but not any other ESPN channel. I’d love to be able to add ESPN, but I’m not willing to pay the price for the next highest bundle package to get it. In fact, the only reason I have cable TV right now is because it actually costs me less to have than not to, given that I pay for broadband internet access over the cable lines. Signing up for the $13 a month basic cable gets me a $15 a month discount on the internet access. What a deal!

A key barrier to economic growth in the developing world is reliable access to the global information network: the Internet. A UN-sponsored study, “Information Economy Report 2005″ by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, (PDF) shows that one of the features of the digital divide between the developing and the developed world has to do with the cost of high-bandwidth Internet access. The report says “that the smaller, low-income Internet markets in developing countries, particularly in Africa, have been unable to attract sufficient investment in infrastructure, which – combined with lack of competition – results in bandwidth cost that can be up to 100 times higher than in developed countries.”

We’re not dealing here with simply the lack of hardware and software, as the UN’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program might lead you to believe. Incidentally, the solution proposed by OLPC to the problem of the cost of Internet connectivity is to create mini-networks of OLPC users: “What about connectivity? Aren’t telecommunications services expensive in the developing world? When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost.”

It’s precisely this problem of connecting to the “backbone of the Internet at very low cost” that is the major issue. The problem has to do with the strength of developing world economies in general, infrastructure issues in particular, and a host of other related complexities. This is not a simple lack of materials. You need a robust and healthy economy to support the kinds of investments and development costs associated with these kinds of infrastructure concerns.

For some irony on the situation of the developing world moving into the digital age, check out the “back-to-paper movement” in the developed world.

HT: International Civic Engagement

Alan Anderson of the Sydney Morning Herald notes that Ronald Reagan’s joke about the Government’s view of the economy has become United Nations policy toward the internet. The Belmont Club blog notes that placing control of the Web into the hands of UN regulators will have far reaching negative consequences:

The United Nations: Working hard to create a less free and less useful internet!

One of the reasons the Internet has been so successful is that it has so far escaped the restraints of Filipino judges, Tunisian government officials and United Nations bureaucrats. Addresses which are published onto the root servers can be resolved and their content displayed, subject to the restrictions of their publishers. The United States, by refusing to regulate the Internet, has occupied the position of an information central banker maintaining the coin of the realm. If lower court Filipino judges and assorted bureaucrats get their way, the pathways of the Internet will be subject to bureaucratic gatekeeping, conducted in the name of “governance”. But the proper word would be debasement.

The moment the free flow of packets over the Internet is no longer substantially guaranteed, it will cease to be trusted. Companies which are building businesses worth billions over the Internet protocols would stop if they knew a relative of the Tunisian President had to be placated for commerce to continue. Applications such email, instant messaging, searches, e-commerce, online banking, virtual medicine — to name a few — would be at the mercy of bureaucratic caprice, not just in the United States, but in every swamp and backwater imaginable. In the end, governing the Internet, especially in the United Nations sense, might be indistinguishable from destroying it. But one can see how that would appeal to those who yearn for bad, bad old days.