Another View: The spectrum debate is obsolete

Jock Gill

When the Defense Department recently reached an accord with the wireless industry over the narrow issue of 5-GHz radio spectrum sharing, both sides missed the big point.

We can argue until dawn about the economic, political and social effects of federal policy for licensing slices of spectrum to broadcasters and others. But there is one argument that should have been settled long ago: The current policy is based on bad science. It concentrates economic power in those who can afford the spectrum licenses. It is an obstacle to genuine free speech for all citizens. And it constrains the military, which is becoming increasingly dependent on the wireless grid for command and control communications.

The government first gave itself the right to license spectrum in the Radio Act of 1912, in response to the RMS Titanic's inability to radio for help. A metaphor was used to explain the limitations of the primitive radios of the time: Transmitters output waves'like the concentric circles being emitted from towers in vintage iconography'that can interfere with one another. Thus, transmitters need to keep to their assigned frequencies.

David Reed, a computer scientist, electrical engineer and one of the Internet's original architects, has said that at the quantum mechanical level, radio waves simply don't interfere. They pass through one another. So, assigning frequencies to particular broadcasters puts wholly artificial limits on what can be done with spectrum.

'In short,' Reed told me recently, 'licensing solves a technology problem that no longer exists.'

The alternative to thinking of spectrum as a series of frequencies that can carry only one message at a time is to recognize that radios no longer need be passive recipients. Any wireless device can have smarts built in to let it negotiate changes in frequencies with the transmitter to find less-used bands or to give priority to emergency or military transmissions.

Frequency hopping dates to World War II to prevent jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes. It is one of a broad array of technological changes that make the idea of assigning frequencies as practical and efficient as assigning one car to each lane on a highway. For example, ultra-wide band packs huge amounts of data into short bursts across many bands, almost like IP packets. Reed's point is that opening the airwaves to anyone with an idea would unleash a wave of innovation.

The innovation wouldn't be just technological. An open spectrum policy would provide everyone within reach of a radio transmission with so much bandwidth that we'd have to change analogies: Rather than talking about how large a trickle of bits we can rent, the air would become a sea of them.

Replacing unnatural monopolies with open markets is precisely the way that new ideas, new businesses, new business models and new wealth are generated. Perhaps new military communications as well.

The physics of electromagnetic energy support opening the spectrum to the ideas and opportunities each person is ready to contribute.

Jock Gill is founder of Penfield-Gill Inc., a Medford, Mass., consultant specializing in new media communications. He was director of special projects in the White House's Office of Media Affairs during the Clinton administration.

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