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September 25, 2006

Internet 2.0 is Open Spectrum

Open spectrum, according to Wikipedia, “is a movement to get the government to provide more unlicensed spectrum, radio frequency spectrum that is available for use by all. Proponents of the "commons model" of open spectrum advocate a future where all the spectrum is shared, using Internet protocols to communicate with each other, and smart devices to find the most effective energy level, frequency, and mechanism.”


A switch to open spectrum has huge implications for Internet access, voice traffic, infrastructure build out, and the entertainment industry.


Ten years from now the idea of licensing swatches of the radio spectrum for private use will seem quaintly obsolete.  Most spectrum will be available for any entity – including individuals - to use so long as the rules for the use of that spectrum are observed.  Today almost all usable frequencies are licensed to private license holders or reserved for specified public uses.


Once this switch to open spectrum happens, you will need only Internet access (over the air or through a wire) to receive all of your content whether you are sitting still or mobile, whether you are at home or traveling.  The equivalent of car radio will be audio over the car’s Internet connection.  Your voice calls will travel over this same connection.  So will weather and traffic reports. GPS may still be a separate radio.  But all of the rest of your mobile needs will be met through an Internet transceiver although this transceiver may include several radios for different terrain.  The choice of radio will depend on where you are, not on what you are trying to access.


Most of us will have big pipes for the Internet at home and in the office, a high-powered connection in our cars, and a power-saving connector with the form factor of a cell phone on our belts or in our purses. We won’t have separate cellphones, radios, portable TVs, or (in most cases) cameras.  We will have speakers, monitors of many sizes, lenses with advanced capability, and handsets but all connectivity will come through the fixed or mobile Internet connection.


We used to have many special purpose terrestrial networks for moving different kinds of data.  The remnant of that history is the increasingly irrelevant (but still very important) special purpose phone network.  Remember when AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy et al were islands of information and communication with anemic inter-island service? Each was a separate network with its own protocols and dedicated network facilities.  The Internet removed the need for “inter-island” communication by providing a common network on which all forms of data – invented and not-invented-yet – move freely between communicators.  We all became much more closely connected and gained access to vast quantities of data and entertainment as a result.


Today the radio frequency is similarly Balkanized.  Parts are licensed to each cellular operator, parts to AM radio stations, other parts to FM radio stations, still other parts to TV “channels”. The chart below shows how the US has divided radio spectrum (click on it if you want to see the detail).


This method of dividing spectrum had a very good purpose in radio’s first century.  The only feasible way to prevent radio transmissions from interfering with each other was to assign unique frequencies for different uses.  The airwaves were considered a public resource and governments allocated (or auctioned) the frequencies according to whatever a particular government’s view of the public good was.  In general the system worked well.


But frequency separation is no longer needed to prevent interference.  Without getting too technical, cheap and abundant computing power makes it possible for huge numbers of users to share spectrum without explicit coordination just as many computers can share an Ethernet network.  Collisions happen and are resolved by the equipment and software.


As an experiment, the FCC in the US and similar bodies in other countries have left small swatches of spectrum open for use without an explicit license.  The availability of this open spectrum has led to important advances like WiFi (you don’t need a radio station license or permission from anyone to operate a WiFi network), Bluetooth, and the services offered by many WISPs (wireless ISPs) for broadband access to the Internet where wired broadband access is not available.


This explosion of innovation in the tiny amount of spectrum which is open parallels the innovation spawned by the existence of an open Internet.  More spectrum –eventually almost all spectrum – can and should be left open.  Current licenses shouldn’t be renewed.  Newly available spectrum should be opened, not auctioned off.


New spectrum IS becoming available because digital technology reduces the amount of spectrum needed for current uses.  The bandwidth allocated to each television channel IS being reduced because it simply isn’t needed.  Problem is that the newly vacated frequencies will almost certainly be resold by the government rather than simply opened for public use.

It took me much too long to realize that open spectrum is going to happen and has huge potential public benefits. Smarter people including Lawrence Lessig, Kevin Werbach, and David Weinberger have been predicting and advocating this for years.  Here are some of the straws in the wind that I missed:


  • Much of our content already is divorced from the over-the-air frequencies which happens to be owned by the content middlemen. Chances are you already receive your television programs through cable or satellite networks. More and more of us listen to Internet radio.  More and more TV content is being made available directly on the Internet. More and more radio stations stream their content on the Internet as well as over the air.
  • Most of the TV I watch comes off the disk drive in my DVR.  I don’t really care how it gets on the disk drive. Tivo is supporting the Internet as an input.  All DVRs will soon.
  • Major League baseball is available on the Internet. I watched the Mets clinch the pennant “over the air” but the radio signal was provided by my WISP using unlicensed spectrum.
  • XM radio brings me “national” radio stations.  The frequencies it uses to get to me are not particularly good for the purpose; they are just the frequencies its operators were able to get licenses for. The AM radio frequencies would, in most cases, be much better. But they are dedicated to “local” use by radio stations. If frequencies were open, the frequencies now devoted to the AM band would be reused for various kinds of mobile access for the same reasons that they were good for car radio initially. No government would decree this – physics says that these relatively low frequencies are good for getting into valleys and around corners so they’d be used this way for all data.

The point is that we want the same information wherever we are and whether we’re stationary or moving; we want to communicate with the same people. The best way to make that information and entertainment more available, to let us all be providers of information and entertainment, and to extend our ability to communicate is to extend the success of the wired Internet to the airwaves.


There are two enormous obstacles to extending the principal of open access to the airwaves: inertia and the interests of those who maintain profitable bottlenecks through private licensing of frequency including operators of cellular networks and TV networks – certainly forces to be reckoned with.


I did post that channels are obsolete but didn’t realize the more important implication that frequency allocation is obsolete as well.

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