Can We Save Wireless from Regulators?

by Doc Searls

Linux was born and grew within an ecosystem of norms, not laws. Those norms were those of programming (C), operating systems (*NIX), command shells (bash, etc.), e-mail (SMTP, etc.) licenses (GPL, etc.) and Internet protocols (TCP/IP and the rest).

Had Linux and the Internet been left up to the world's big operating system and network providers, we never would have had either one. Instead, we would have had what business giants and their captive regulators are inclined to believe both actually are: "intellectual property" and billable "services".

"Free" and "open" are the adjectives that best describe the development ethos that allowed Linux and the Internet to happen. Yes, there were regulations around, but Linux and the Net grew up outside the scope of what Bob Frankston calls The Regulatorium. To a blessed degree they still do, but that degree is getting narrower and less blessed as more of our computing and communicating moves to mobile devices.

For the most part, those devices are not native to the open Internet. Although they can operate on the Internet (and in the case of Android devices, run on a breed of Linux), they are native by design to the walled commercial gardens of cellular telephone companies. These are regulatory zoo animals that also happen to run the zoo—at least in how they conceive wireless communications and influence regulators.

Perhaps the most expensive and retro conceptual framework for wireless communications is one that carriers and regulators buy completely and the rest of us hardly ever question. That framework is spectrum. As artificial scarcities go, spectrum might be the largest and most expensive in world history. And yet, it remains the prevailing frame for understanding wireless, both for regulators and for ordinary muggles.

Take, for example, this story: "A major New York TV station could win $900 million—if it goes off the air. Here's why", by Brian Fung, in the October 16, 2015 issue of The Washington Post. In it, he points to this list of opening reverse auction prices on the spectra occupied by TV stations in every US market, including those in its overseas territories: Topping the list is WCBS-TV in New York, better known there as Channel 2 (even though it actually operates on Channel 33, spanning 584–590MHz). Price: $900 million. He explains:

The figures represent the maximum amount each broadcaster could receive for participating in a never-before-tried auction of wireless airwaves, one that's designed to transfer control of that invisible real estate to wireless carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile. Cellular providers say they need access to more of the radio spectrum to build out next-generation mobile data networks. (All wireless data, from TV signals to 4G LTE, ride atop spectrum, a finite resource.)

What he's talking about here is auctioning off over-the-air TV channels to wireless carriers, in faith that the wireless carriers can do more with those channels (collections of adjacent frequencies) than the TV stations can—which is probably true. The FCC is also making it possible for stations to bid on other lower-frequency channels that are less desirable for cellular wireless but just fine for over-the-air TV. Since most people watch cable rather than over-the-air TV, the stations might not want to buy other channels at all. A for-sure end result of all this is that over-the-air TV will end up even more dead than it is already.

But, the framing is what matters most here. "Real estate" and "a finite resource" are taken as givens—independent variables, beyond question.

Yet, what we're also talking about here is what Bob Frankston correctly calls "selling the color blue"—meaning that spectrum shouldn't be for sale at all.

Wireless communications has no more need for "providers" to buy spectrum than any of us have for providers selling us the color blue in order for us to see or use it. Rather than explaining the rest of what that means, I'll turn the floor over to David P. Reed, one of the Internet's founding figures and a scientist of the first water, writing to a list I'm on:

So there's a fundamental technical question regarding radio systems architectures, which relates to sharing of the medium (colloquially, the airwaves). I've written and spoken about this for decades now, as an engineer. Here's the question:

Is it technically necessary to build regulation into the burgeoning, and highly localized, growth of communications? (And a corollary: why can't computationally powerful radio-networked systems just cooperate, for the mutual benefit of all users of the airwaves?) The answer appears to be No (and They Absolutely Can).

Now the key here is "cooperation".

There's a great incentive for cooperation in communications. That's the entire basis for the success of the Internet! The fact that standardizing on a single abstract framework for communications that is technologically agnostic both in regard to the transport infrastructure (and airwaves) and the applications has actually completely upended the communications industry and how all citizens of the world do their interaction should be obvious....

Radio networks can sense the airwaves and modify their behavior—as a network—cooperatively to make the best of what they are capable of doing. Now that we have software and powerful signal processing in every radio chip, cooperation is not that hard.

And there's a huge return on "effort" to cooperation....We know that what is possible is far better than what is achieved by cooperative systems today....

Cooperation at the local level is easy because people control their own real estate. We don't need the FCC to tell us that we can turn devices on or off if they mess up our local environment. That's the genius of Part 15.

So the combination of incentives to cooperate to get better use out of the airwaves (now technically feasible, far more than ever before, because of Moore's Law, information theory, and digital signal processing, as well as amazing improvements in analog semiconductor technology for sensing and transmitting), AND the desire to make our local environments work well should be enough.

But in DC...the issue is "who wins?" [When] the real question should be: what serves the public interest?

And in terms of local communications, what serves the public interest is locally managed, freely chosen, technologies that cooperate and interoperate to at least some extent.

Everything David talks about here is outside the framework of spectrum. It's just radios talking to radios, the best ways they can. These new-generation radios are like the Internet that way. TCP/IP, the Internet's founding and persistent protocol suite, specifies a "best effort" for getting data from any one end to any other, regardless of who owns and operates the "pipes" (wireless or otherwise) between those ends. The possibilities it opens are boundless. But you can't see them if you remain stuck inside old framings.

On one of the many Geek Cruises that Linux Journal hosted back around the turn of the Millennium, we visited the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a primary collection point in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI looks mostly in the microwave window of frequencies where the most can be heard across outer space and presumably where the most is being transmitted by distant intelligent beings. In the beginning of SETI, a framing assumption was that extraterrestrials possibly would be radiating radio and television in a manner like unto our own systems of that time.

Back then, TV stations radiated up to five million watts toward the horizon (near the lower-frequency range of that microwave window). The most powerful digital transmitters of today's stations are still one million watts. Meanwhile, cell tower transmissions are a few watts at most, and the phones in our pockets use fractions of a single watt. In other words, all are so weak, on purpose, that even the most sensitive receivers light years away have no hope of detecting them.

Cellular communications, which relies on local and low power transmission, was, and remains, a huge and highly original invention—one that made it possible to crowd many more communication paths into local and worldwide geography than ever would have been possible with brute-force transmissions of the old broadcast school.

What cellular did was free us from believing that bigger was better. Now we need the same kind of liberation from the belief that spectrum is scarce. Because it's not. And selling it makes no sense, except to business as usual, its captive regulators and the billions of people who still don't know better. Let's change that.


Bob Frankston:

The Regulatorium:

"A major New York TV station could win $900 million—if it goes off the air. Here's why":

Brian Fung:

Reverse Auction Opening Prices:

WCBS-TV New York, Channel 33:

Television Channel Frequencies, UHF:

David P. Reed:

Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico:


Search for Extraterrestrials—Microwave Window:

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