~e; Spectrum Wants to Be Free

From human being <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Thu, 12 Dec 2002 23:00:17 -0600

// for some reason i connect 'ultrawideband' with some controversy
// either within industry itself or between spectrum allocations
// of the private and public/military sectors, as the 3G networks
// also raise in what part of the spectrum signals can fly thru...


Spectrum Wants to Be Free

Never pay for phone, cable, or net access again

By Kevin Werbach


A revolution is brewing in wireless. In an industry speech in October, 
FCC chair Michael Powell expressed support for a radical idea called 
open spectrum that could transform the communications landscape as 
profoundly as the Internet ever did. If it works, you'll never pay for 
telephone, cable, or Net access again.

Open spectrum treats the airwaves as a commons, shared by all. It's the 
brainchild of engineers, activists, and scholars such as wireless 
gadfly Dewayne Hendricks, former Lotus chief scientist David Reed, and 
NYU law professor Yochai Benkler. The idea is that smart devices 
cooperating with one another function more effectively than huge 
proprietary communications networks. The commons can be created through 
distinct, unlicensed "parks" or through "underlay" technologies, such 
as ultrawideband, that are invisible to licensed users in the same band.

In an open spectrum world, wireless transmitters would be as ubiquitous 
as microprocessors: in televisions, cars, public spaces, handheld 
devices, everywhere. They would tune themselves to free spectrum and 
self-assemble into networks. Anyone could become a radio broadcaster 
reaching millions. Phone calls would rarely need to pass through 
central networks; they would be handed off and relayed across devices, 
for free or nearly so. Businesses would track far-flung assets in real 
time via embedded sensors. Big TV networks and cable operators would 
lose their hammerlock control over media distribution. Entrepreneurs 
would develop as yet undreamed of applications that we can't live 
without. It happens any time open platforms emerge - think eBay and 

The revolution has already started. Wi-Fi, a runaway success, uses a 
narrow slice of spectrum that is already "open." Wi-Fi is a shot across 
the bow, much the way the Arpanet served as a proving ground for the 
commercial Internet. As ever, Moore's law is on the side of the 
technology upstart. Radio waves resemble ripples on a pond rather than 
swimmers in a pool - they pass through one another. Distinguishing them 
can be difficult, but it's not beyond the talents of today's radio 

When spectrum licensing was established in the early 20th century, 
radios were primitive, as was the regulatory model used to govern them. 
To be heard, broadcasters needed an exclusive slice of spectrum. Today, 
however, digital technologies let many users occupy the same frequency 
at the same time. As the FCC's Powell points out, "Modern technology 
has fundamentally changed the nature and extent of spectrum use." 
Today's devices employ advanced digital signal processing and other 
techniques, and they're smart enough to coexist without interference.

Wi-Fi's success is attracting capital and encouraging research into the 
open spectrum idea. Last year, over the bitter opposition of entrenched 
spectrum holders, the FCC granted limited approval for ultrawideband. 
Within the next year, half of all laptops used at work are expected to 
have wireless connections. And within four years, Intel hopes to 
incorporate transmitters into all of its processor chips.

Standing in the way of open spectrum are incumbent licensees, 
government agencies nervous about interference, and economists 
entranced by the airwave auction market.

Yet the spectrum auction markets are not free markets. Each buyer gains 
what is, in effect, a little monopoly - which, in the aggregate, 
stifles communications progress just as well as one big monopoly.

Governments have long treated the airwaves like real estate to be 
handed out to favored operators or auctioned for huge sums. And like 
real estate, spectrum makes people do stupid things. The English 
auctions for third-generation mobile phone licenses in 2000 left the 
winners choked with debt. In the US, the battle over bankrupt 
NextWave's licenses and the hyped transition to digital TV are 
multibillion-dollar fiascoes.

The problem here is not the market, but the outdated real-estate 
metaphor. Yet, if spectrum was seen as a commons that could be shared 
by all, then builders of wireless devices would rush to fill it, 
unleashing market forces to everyone's benefit. It's already happened 
with Wi-Fi: A billion-dollar industry emerged overnight with no 
protection against interference. And Wi-Fi is only the beginning.

Independent analyst Kevin Werbach (kevin@werbach.com) is the former FCC 
counsel for new technology policy.

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