Opening the Cellwaves

by Doc Searls

How long before the carriers and the FCC admit that the new transmission medium for radio is the cell system? And how long before they also recognize that the cell system is properly part of the Net's infrastructure and not just cordless telephony with messaging tacked on?

Those are the questions that come up for me when I read Can The New iPhone Revolutionize Radio? Technology Guru Larry Magid Explores The Possibilities Of Free Or Cheap Web Radio Software, at An excerpt:

With San Jose Mercury News technology reporter Troy Wolverton at the wheel, I plugged the iPhone into the auxiliary jack of his car radio while we drove around the San Jose, Calif. area listening to WCBS Newsradio from New York, a radio station from Kingston, Jamaica and a customized channel through Pandora.

Even at 66 miles an hour on U.S. Highway 101, the sound was better than what you'd expect from a clear FM signal. I also tuned into my local KCBS news station where the sound quality was definitely better than the station's terrestrial AM signal.

The iPhone isn't the first device to bring Internet radio to people on the go. There is streaming radio software for Windows Mobile, Palm and Blackberry, but they haven't received widespread recognition.

Given the iPhone's popularity and the fact that you can get these stations free with the AT&T data plan, I expect this to become one of the more popular uses for the iPhone, especially for people who commute by car. And, unless car radio manufacturers and automakers have their heads in the sand, I wouldn't be surprised to see similar technology built into car audio systems.

This affirms what I wrote a few days ago, in The New Business of Free Radio: ...the Internet is going to eat most of terrestrial radio transmission as well. And ... iPhones are just the incisors at the front of the Net's giant maw.

The history of infrastructure is one of endlessly repurposed uses. Cow paths become dirt roads that become railroads that become bike trails. Railroads and power line easements play host to fiber optic cabling buried in the ground or draped from tower to tower in the sky. Power poles become telephone poles that also serve as cable TV poles and fiber optic Internet poles.

The Internet is the ultimate software-eats-hardware story, and that applies to hardware infrastructure as well. Hardware is still required, of course, but not for its original narrow purposes. Those purposes in many cases (including telephony, television and radio) are subsumed by the Internet and its protocols. While those protocols might not be ideal for, say, radio transmission of the customary sort, they're good enough. And in the real world good-enough wins when widespread deployment and adoption is easy.

That's what we're looking at for television and radio.

The question here is, can our free & open brethren lead the way? Or will we wait for Apple and its proprietary allies (including AT&T) to get a head start and then make open versions of what they do?

If we follow the second path, we'll fail at a fundamental mission, which is opening the infrastructure itself. To do that we need to create open phones that are damned good at being Net-generation radios and televisions, as well as recording and producing devices. We also need to work at making clear how much more business the carriers and phone makers will find in a world of generative devices, rather than locked-down ones — a world where anything is possible, rather than one where legacy monopolies get leveraged for the duration.