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March 09, 2003

Wireless Spectrum Policy

"Spectrum policy is undergoing a fundamental reorientation in the United States and elsewhere. An emerging consensus holds that the traditional system of governmentally-allocated spectrum rights inhibits innovation and competition. The central question now facing policy makers is what form of spectrum management should replace the existing system." — Spectrum Policy: Property or Commons?

There is a significant argument happening right now about wireless spectrum policy -- is spectrum property to be owned or should it rather be a shared commons? An excellent debate on this issue occurred recently at a conference hosted by Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.

On the one hand, some argue that the wireless spectrum should be sold outright, creating a market economy that could result in lower prices and drive innovation. Others argue that requiring purchases of spectrum will limit experimentation and that spectrum is not as scarce a resource as the proponents of ownership would imagine, since technology is enabling increasing communication in the same spaces without interference -- the success of local WiFi networks is a prime example of this. The decision on this will be fundamental to innovation in wireless communication -- driven either by companies with the funds to invest in buying spectrum up front or by folks who can create products without significant barriers to entry. It sure seems to me that the lower barriers to entry of the commons is the way to go, particularly as we don't fully understand all the applications yet. This is very similar to the assumptions of the Internet itself, which established a simple common space built on TCP/IP that has spurred incredible distributed innovation.

Two of the champions of the commons model in this conversation are Lawrence Lessig and Kevin Werbach, both of whom have active weblogs. Lessig comes from the legal world and has been raising all kinds of interesting policy issues and engaging the software community about them through his books, his work on the Creative Commons project, and his department at Stanford hosting the discussion. Kevin Werbach comes from the FCC, then recently as editor of Release 1.0, and now on his own as an analyst and conference host of Supernova. He combines rich knowledge of both the policy and technology worlds, and passionately argues here for the innovation possible in the commons.

I'm very glad to see the degree of involvement by people in the software industry and blogging community. Historically, the software industry has not engaged much in policy debates or government regulation. The closest we have really come is participating in standards discussions through organizations like the W3C and IETF. As the Internet has begun to bring wide societal changes about, it has become more important for us to participate. Organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been at the forefront of this, but I believe the grassroots nature of blogging is really bringing this involvement to a wider community, led by champions coming from the policy-making world into the technology world.

The weblog discussion continues through attendees including Dave Winer, Joi Ito, Cory Doctorow, Doc Searls, Lisa Rein, Dan Gillmor, Aaron Swartz, Dave Sifry, Matt Haughey and others who all provided coverage of the session. I think this is just the beginning of how the software industry will be increasingly participating in policy discussions and of course bringing our network communication tools and gadgetry to the job.

09 Mar 03 12:25 PM


John Dowdell says:

This conversation is a little strange for me, because I started following spectrum debate in the 80s through Reason Magazine... seeing it treated as a whole new thing is odd now. Cato's historical view this week is useful:

When I walk around San Francisco each day I see copies of the Bay Guardian and SF Weekly (two "free" advertisers/newspapers) left atop their racks... apparently lots of Bay Guardian readers take out a paper, look to check an address, and then leave it right there to blow away in the wind instead of putting the newspaper back in the rack. With the paid newspapers people instead carry them for a little while before tossing them.... ;-)

I'm a little skeptical about a commons approach. Investing in a resource means you're more likely to pay attention to feedback about that resource. For example, email is a commons, and the harvest has been spam.

I'm not sure why there's a debate, though... don't we already have some frequencies set up for unlicensed users, and others under monopoly control? Have you seen a succinct summary of exactly what people want to change? Most frequency ranges are already apportioned in some way, so what's the operational goal in this debate? Maybe all this talk is just about the next Five-Year-Plan...?

(I notice you didn't venture your own opinion here, btw... see, that's why you're diplomatic and I'm not.... ;-)

Posted by: John Dowdell on 11 Mar 03 05:02 PM

Kevin Lynch says:

I'm so diplomatic perhaps you didn't notice my opinion! I favor opening more spectrum to innovation, pursuing the commons approach.

While there are certainly examples of waste of the commons, I believe innovation outweighs waste, and in some cases waste actually drives innovation -- for example, email has not improved in about 30 years, but I am certain spam is now driving innovation in email clients and servers we will see soon to help you better manage your interactions, which should benefit your normal email communications as well.

Some small parts of the spectrum are open (like the 2.4Ghz band, which before WiFi took advantage of it was known as the "junk band" by the FCC because it was thought to have little value), but they apparently have different characterisitics in terms of broadcast reach, etc.

There's a new article on Salon interviewing David Reed about these issues, interesting reading once you get past the ad:

Posted by: Kevin Lynch on 13 Mar 03 07:09 AM

John Dowdell says:

heh, I was trying to be diplomatic by not noticing your diplomacy there.... ;-)

I'm still not sure of the goal of these discussions... I hear people discussing which metaphor to use, but I'm still not sure whether there's a specific frequency range that is in play right now.

Maybe I'm missing the core among all the words. If they're trying to determine "how everything should be forevermore", then why not just make even-integer frequencies open to any user, and odd-integer frequencies a dedicated and transferrable resource? Are these debates actually trying to achieve a specific goal...?

Posted by: John Dowdell on 13 Mar 03 09:44 AM

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