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September 27, 2006

Backstory of Open Spectrum Epiphany

An epiphany is an orgasm for a nerd (not wikipedia definition).  I shoulda realized the importance of open spectrum before (Monday’s post) but I didn’t until a mundane event smacked me in the face.

We were at daughter Kelly’s apartment.  I needed to make a phone call and asked her to turn down the music.  She did that on her Mac.  After the call, I asked her what she was listening to.

“Local radios station,” she said.  “The Mac was closer than the radio so Marc turned it on there.”

“Tom,” Mary said. “TOM,” when I didn’t respond.  I was a million miles away in the implications of what Kelly had just said.

“Bear, earth to Bear,” Kelly said (I’m “Bear” to her).

“Do you realize the implications of this?” I finally managed.

“Huh?”  But I was gone again.  Couldn’t be fully responsive until I blogged what I’d suddenly realized.

  1. We want the same content no matter where we are.
  2. We want to talk to the same people no matter where we or they are.
  3. All content that is on the air is rapidly becoming available online.
  4. Increasingly, we get online over the air.
  5. Dedicating radio frequencies to particular types of content and to particular content middlemen (radio stations, TV stations etc.) or to particular applications (voice, SMS, marine radio) no longer makes any sense.
  6. Using frequencies appropriately for terrain, distance, and power consumption makes all the sense in the world (but doesn’t require that frequencies be allocated).
  7. Bandwidth is incredibly underutilized in the present scheme where it IS allocated to applications and the owners of the applications.
  8. Underutilization makes bandwidth rare but doesn’t have to happen.

Ergo, open spectrum is the next big thing.  Essentially, the airwaves become part of the Internet.  Almost all content and almost all connectivity is available on the Internet so almost all content and almost all connectivity will be available over the air.  It won’t make any more sense for a radio station – or any other source of music, news, and sports – to own an antenna than it makes sense for websites to own networks that reach their users (early online service like CompuServe and AOL DID own networks before the public use of the Internet).

Today radio and TV stations have websites.  More and more of them stream their content and/or archive it on their websites.  Tomorrow these stations become their websites.  They succeed or fail based on their ability to attract and package content for a particular audience and their ability to monetize that audience – just like today.  But owning a particular slice of radio spectrum is no longer part of the equation.  Nor is owning the broadcast equipment.  All content on the web will be available on the air.

DUH!  That’s always the way I feel after an epiphany.  When I Googled, I found that plenty of smart people figured this all out before.

Of course, once you understand something, you see evidence of it all around you.  For example, New Orleans television station WWL was able to stay on the air after Katrina and keep their reporters in the field because of great planning.  Equally important, a fast deal with Yahoo made their “local” news available on the Web to a city in exile. I had blogged about this for its disaster recovery implications but didn’t see the broader implication.

Nevertheless, suddenly understanding the importance of open spectrum and the magnitude and benefits of the transition from today’s system of Balkanized and regulated frequencies gives me the same excited and unsettled feeling I got when I realized how important the Internet was going to be for data and when I belatedly saw that voice is also data.  Open spectrum is gonna be big. 

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