Wireless Commons Part 2: The Possibilities of an Open, Unlicensed Spectrum

In the first part of this series, we discussed how spectrum could be better managed to allow far greater communications capacity, but only if the FCC abandoned its traditional approach of auctioning spectrum to carriers for monopolistic use. In this part, we’ll discuss how devices could take advantage of a new approach to spectrum management and how it might help to circumvent gatekeepers, whether corporate or government.

With increased unlicensed use of the spectrum, an astonishing range of possibilities emerges. Mobile devices could communicate with each other directly, without reference to a central node controlled by a telecom company or monitored by a government. Access points could be strung together wirelessly to create decentralized ad hoc networks, with each device forwarding data from every other, creating a seamless network throughout an entire neighborhood or city. Commotion Wireless is already attempting this on a small scale with just the existing spectrum.

Such networks already exist in a few places, but access to more unlicensed spectrum and permission to use stronger signals would allow them to grow, potentially creating a more decentralized and democratic way to share information and access the internet; an end-run around data caps, future “fast lane” policies, and other drawbacks of relying on one or two telecom oligopolists as a network owner and gatekeeper.

Another exciting possibility for unlicensed spectrum use can be found in emerging Ultra-Wide Band technologies. These allow devices to use a large swath of spectrum at very low power to send information in bits and pieces over short distances, somewhat similar to bitTorrents, and could allow for nearly instantaneous exchange of gigabits of data. All of this is dependent, however, on access to spectrum with the right characteristics, such as low frequency TV bands that can penetrate physical obstacles like walls or trees especially well.

These technologies have political ramifications as well. Rather than having to make monthly payments to a national provider as you do with your cell phone, we would have different models to choose from. Some would be just a matter of buying the right device, just as we already do with computers. Imagine setting up a neighborhood-wide network just as easily as setting up a home Wi-Fi network.

These possibilities are made both more enticing and more urgent by the huge growth in the demand for mobile data worldwide. The near ubiquitous status of increasingly high tech mobile devices, combined with the increased use of smart meters and other remotely controlled devices for homes and businesses, as well as the general growth in the size of audio, video, and other files all drive this trend.

Mobile connections grew from 1% to 13% of total Internet traffic from 2009 to 2012, and Qualcomm expects mobile data usage to grow by a factor of 1,000 from 2012 to 2020. With these demands, it is increasingly important to find new ways to use the spectrum that are not mutually exclusive. In this environment, the allocation of exclusive broadcasting licenses for the vast majority of the spectrum to incumbents who use those rights inefficiently makes little sense.

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The FCC has some choices to make about how it will meet these challenges. It could simply clear underused spectrum, chop it up, and auction it again for new one-time revenue. Clearing space on the spectrum through reallocation is expensive and time consuming, however, involving complex legal and technical maneuvering.

What if rather than having Wi-Fi, the U.S. Treasury had a few extra billion dollars by auctioning that space on the spectrum to a monopoly provider rather than creating a commons? These are the real trade-offs currently being weighed and you better believe that the big wireless companies and their allies in Congress are working hard to prevent any major changes to the system they rule.

There are smarter approaches. The FCC could create a framework for sharing licensed spectrum, retaining priority use for original license holders while also forcing them to allow intelligent devices that sense and make use of available frequencies to operate within their licensed space. Or they could clear more space to be used for unlicensed communications, currently restricted to a few tiny portions of the spectrum. More unlicensed space is the most likely approach to foster significant development of new wireless technologies, which are difficult or impossible to deploy while telecom companies control so much of the airwaves.

All of this is unlikely to happen in the current regulatory regime. Telecom companies have shelled out billions for exclusive licenses and made large investments in technologies that work within the current business model of spectrum ownership. They also covet the foreclosure value that their ownership provides, meaning the ability to shut out competitors by denying them spectrum. As a result, a few massive telecom corporations have little to gain by democratizing access to spectrum bandwidth.

National elected officials, most of whom are not known for their technological savvy, must weigh the temptation of quick money ($20 billion from one auction in 2008 alone) in new license auctions with the difficult to conceptualize but potentially massive economic and social benefits of a more open spectrum. Unless they feel pressure from ordinary citizens who stand to benefit from greater spectrum freedom, the status quo of expensive, centralized communications and suppression of innovation is unlikely to change.

Spectrum graphic courtesy of Wiki Commons.