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<nettime> Open Spectrum FAQ
Jon Lebkowsky on Sun, 26 Jan 2003 18:31:10 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Open Spectrum FAQ

Open Spectrum FAQ, version 1.1.1 (by David Weinberger, Jock Gill, David P.
Reed, and Dewayne Hendricks)

Discussion at http://www.quicktopic.com/boing/H/L5zTVhKwmR3B

1. This sounds like a pretty geeky, technical topic. Why should I care?

Imagine that every American had the same access to the public airways as
broadcasters do today.

Imagine everyone living within reach of a radio signal had the ability to
communicate with everyone else.

Imagine rather than having to worry about how much "bandwidth" is enough,
everyone had unlimited access to bits so that the size of what you
communicate simply didn't matter.

You know the effect the Internet has had on how we live and work together?
Multiply it by hundred.

Opening the spectrum would turn a federally-managed permissions system into
an open market for ideas and creativity. The effects on our democracy and
economy should not be underestimated.

2. What are the goals of supporting Open Spectrum?

1. To enable innovation in the wireless world by removing the roadblocks:
regulations based on incorrect technical assumptions, and commercial
interests afraid that innovations will loosen their control of markets.

2. To enable everything that can be connected to be connected, accomodating
the exponential increase in wireless communications driven by the growth of
pervasive and interoperable devices on the Internet.

3. What is spectrum?

"Spectrum" refers to the range of frequencies over which electromagnetic
signals can be sent.  That includes radio, television, wireless Internet
connectivity, remote control toy race cars, and every other communication
enabled by radio waves.

4. Who uses spectrum?

Everyone who uses a technology that connects without wires. That includes
radios, TVs without cable, planes with radar, cell phones, portable phones,
garage door openers, baby monitors... In short, if you live in the 21st
century in a place with electricity or batteries, you are almost certainly a
user of spectrum.

5. What is Open Spectrum (OS)?

An Open Spectrum policy would permit anyone to send signals across any range
of spectrum without permission, with the minimum set of rules required to
enable the success of a "wireless commons."

6. Is Open Spectrum a new technology?

Definitely not. It's a new approach to governance that incorporates a much
more accurate view of the relationship between bits, their physical
representations as electromagnetic waves in space, and our tools for
manipulating signals (including the ability to build distributed, adaptive,
interoperable communications architectures).

7. How much will Open Spectrum cost?

The infrastructure is already largely in place. The incremental costs will
be quickly replaced by a dramatic drop in the cost per bit for businesses,
end-users and the government.

In addition, the provisioning of every businessperson, family, content
creator and inventor with unlimited access to bits and easy connection to
all others will create a market for innovation that cannot be overestimated.

8. What's the current spectrum policy?

The FCC has implemented a system where parts of the spectrum are allocated
on either an exclusive or shared basis. If 'exclusive', then the right to
use this spectrum is conveyed by a license. The terms of this license give
its holder the right to use this block of spectrum for the term of the
license. If 'shared', then access to the spectrum is shared by many users,
who are either given a license, or who use equipment to access that spectrum
which has been certified by the FCC. With this type of access, the FCC
specifies some 'rules of the road' so that interference between the sharing
partners is minimized.

This method of sharing the radio spectrum has come to be known as 'command
and control.'

9. How did we get to the current policy?

The policy began in 1912 as a reaction to the failure of the Titanic's help
signals. The Radio Act of 1912 enabled the Secretary of Commerce to license
radio frequencies but did not give him the right to reject applications. By
the 'Twenties, enough broadcasters had jumped in that the technology of the
time produced significant interference among signals, a situation the Radio
Act of 1927 addressed by declaring the "ether" to be a publicly owned
resource that should be doled out in ways that meet public interests. In The
Great Lakes Broadcasting case (1929), the Federal Radio Commission (later
called the FCC) said that "public interest" means the broadcasts meet the
"tastes, needs, and desires of all substantial groups among the listening
public . . . in some fair proportion, by a well-rounded program, in which
entertainment, consisting of music of both classical and lighter grades,
religion, education and instruction, important public events, discussions of
public questions, weather, market reports, and news, and matters of interest
to all members of the family find a place..." Thus did the federal
government become the arbiter of what constitutes worthwhile content.

The FCC itself was founded as part of the 1934 Telecommunications Act.

10. What's changed that now makes Open Spectrum plausible?

Technology has evolved since the Titanic went down. The laws and policies in
existence today address limitations of the technology of the early 1900's.

Interference  which we've treated as as law of nature  is an artifact of
the way radio were designed 100 years ago. If interference isn't an issue,
then the reasons we started to license spectrum become irrelevant.

In fact, the core premise that has undergirded our spectrum policy has
dissolved: There is no scarcity of spectrum. It does not need to be doled
out. On the contrary, there is an abundance of spectrum.

Our current policies prevent us from benefiting from this abundance.

11. Technologically, what's changed to make OS plausible?

When radios were invented, they were designed to do one thing only: receive
as cheaply as possible. They were much less capable of processing the
signals they were receiving. Our electronic and information processing
technologies have advanced considerably since then:

    Today's receivers are capable of separating signal from noise well
enough that they don't need "buffer zones" around the frequency they are

    Receivers and transmitters are smart enough to be able to switch
frequencies as a particular band gets more congested. As with allowing cars
to change lanes on the highway, this dramatically increases overall

    "Software-defined radios" (SDR) can do more with a signal than decode it
as sounds to be played through speakers. SDRs can be programmed to treat
these signals as encoding any conceivable type of data.

12. What is interference?

Interference is a metaphor. And it is a misleading one. Everyone knows that
waves don't actually interfere with one another. How do we know this? Try
talking while someone else is talking. Your sound waves don't garble the
other person's. Both sets of sound waves arrive intact. Of course, it can be
hard to understand what either person is saying. But that's not because the
sound waves have been deformed the way talking through a pillow or a kazoo
deforms the them. Instead, the problem is with our "software's" inability to
interpret the sound waves.

Likewise with radio waves. The garbling of signal that prevents good
reception isn't due to interference but to the inability of the receiver to
separate signal from noise. But modern receivers are far better able to do
that. As a result, we no longer need a federal policy that is the equivalent
of licensing only one person to talk at a time.

13. Interference is a metaphor??? Then why is my car's radio so lousy?

Interference does not exist as a thing in itself. It only becomes
interference if the receiver can't isolate the information in a complex
signal. It's the processing ("detection" or "demodulation") that gets
confused, and the confusion is highly specific to the particular detector.

For example, there are 3 or 4 types of FM demodulators that are standard.
Each one has its own way to extract information from an FM modulated signal,
and each one reacts to excess signals differently. But one can design an FM
demodulator that is highly robust to all kinds of other signals.

This is not to say that we should. But surely over a period of 50 years,
without regulation, we would have migrated many of our communications
systems to ones that work much better and cooperate much better. Regulation
has protected weak systems far too long from competition and innovation.

Interference is a metaphor. It cannot be precisely defined technically
without fully specifying a particular technology frozen in time, and in any
case has nothing to do with the legal definition given by the FCC.

14. How much more "bandwidth" would Open Spectrum provide?

This question makes an unwarranted assumption. It thinks that spectrum is
like a natural resource: there's just so much, so it needs to be apportioned
wisely and fairly. In fact, neither spectrum nor information are things with
fixed sizes. For example, as compression algorithms get better, more
information fits into fewer bits. And as more people join a wireless
network, there can be a cooperative gain effect whereby the network actually
increases its capacity.

To take just one example, a recent New York Times article reported on a new
technology, called BLAST by its inventors at Bell Labs, that uses "the
reflections that plague current wireless systems" to expand the capacity
"'far, far in excess of what people were thinking of.'"

15. Is unlicensed spectrum the same as Open Spectrum?

No. Unlicensed spectrum refers to spectrum for which the FCC doesn't issue a
specific license to a user, but instead certifies equipment that may be used
in a segment of spectrum designated for shared use. For example, the 2.4 GHz
band is such a area, which is why you may have noticed that that's the only
place where innovations such as Wi-Fi and long-range cordless phones
operate. (The lesson: opening spectrums enables innovation.)

16. Why wouldn't making more spectrum unlicensed do the trick?

While unlicensing more spectrum would certainly help the development and
deployment of new technologies, it would not allow the open and ubiquitous
access that could transform our economy and democracy.  Merely unlicensing
some more spectrum keeps us in a permission economy.

17. Why not be incremental about this and open up some spectrum but not all
of it?

The push for increasing the amount of unlicensed spectrum tacitly accepts
the current metaphors and paradigms. The metaphors are outdated and the
paradigms legitimize anti-democratic power structures that give permission
and privilege to a few economic giants. We should instead be reframing the
question. And once the question is reframed, we believe that Open Spectrum
is the obvious answer.

18. So everything would change overnight?

No. If Open Spectrum is accepted as a policy, open market forces will bring
about change at the pace the market finds acceptable. As fast as newer,
better technology can be deployed to implement legacy functions, those
legacy functions will go away due to competition.

But the market has to be open if this is to work. For example, that means
that we should be able to send "TV" broadcasts over the Internet and
wireless networks, without attempts by content owners to limit the path by
which it gets to users.

19. What about security?

Security should not be built into Open Spectrum, any more than it is built
into the Internet. It will be more secure if it is done at the "ends" of the
communication, not in the middle. (This is the point of the "End-to-End"
argument.) In short: if you want security, encrypt your transmissions.

20. Should the military and/or emergency services have their own protected

First, we believe that the frequencies that the military uses for
communications, radar, etc. would be as secure and interference free as any
other set of frequencies in a world with Open Spectrum. This is a question
that needs to be argued on its scientific merits, free of scare-mongering.

Second, assigned frequencies have their own vulnerabilities. One of the
basic technological enablers of the Open Spectrum approach is some form of
"frequency hopping" that opportunistically moves transmissions into the most
accessible bands. This approach was invented during World War II (and,
surprisingly, Hedy Lamaar is one of the two names on the initial patent) to
get around the fact that a radio-controlled torpedo could be jammed if its
assigned frequency were detected. If the military wants to own its own slice
of spectrum because allowing others onto it might cause "interference," what
would keep terrorists from purposefully causing the problem?

We have all been learning, across the board, that open, distributed networks
are far more secure and robust than hard-wired, centralized ones. That
lesson applies to spectrum as well.

21. What is Ultra-Wide Band?

It's a technology that transmits complex waves across huge swaths of
frequencies in short bursts. It transmits in such a way that it has a
minimal impact on other users of the frequency bands that it crosses. This
effect is known as "'underlay."

22. What is the relationship of broadband Internet and Open Spectrum?

"Broadband" usually refers to increasing the size of the pipe through which
the Internet can pump bits to and from an end user. Big pipes are better
than little pipes, but Open Spectrum can connect people where putting pipes
is prohibitively expensive and constraining. Since installing new cable
typically costs hundreds of dollars per end point, wireless solutions are
naturally preferable in almost all cases.

Wireless technologies based on open interconnection and cooperative
networking can provide most or all the benefits of pipes, without the costs
and permissions needed to deploy wires.

23. What is Software-Defined Radio?

You can view a SDR either as a radio with a computer attached to it or a
computer with a radio attached to it. Rather than simply assuming that the
information coming via radio waves encode sounds, a SDR can treat the
information any way that it's programmed to. This makes radios much smarter
and it makes computers part of a ubiquitous network of unimaginable

24. What sort of applications are we likely to see if spectrum is made open?

Some applications are obvious and predictable: more end user creation of
high definition TV works, more video-on-demand. But the real importance is
that we will see an outburst of innovation as people and businesses realize
they can reach a broad range of people with two-way applications that rely
on the rapid movement of large amounts of data.

What if we were all connected to one another wherever there's a radio
signal? What if we could communicate whatever and whenever we want? What
would we build? How would our economy grow? How would our spirit bloom?

25. Is the FCC seriously looking at opening the spectrum?

Michael Powell in a speech in October 2002 said "we are still living under a
spectrum 'management' regime that is 90 years old. It needs a hard look, and
in my opinion, a new direction....Modern technology has fundamentally
changed the nature and extent of spectrum use. So the real question is, how
do we fundamentally alter our spectrum policy to adapt to this reality?"
Citizens "deserve a new spectrum policy paradigm that is rooted in modern
day technologies and markets."

26. Won't the broadcasters and the military stop this?

They may try. But they don't hold their licenses for their sakes. They hold
their licenses because it was decided  correctly in our view  that the
airwaves are owned by all of us. Licensing spectrum brought the public much
good when the technology of the day required putting limits on who can
connect. Today's technology is erasing those limits. The new public good is
access and connectedness.

27. What effect will this have on broadcasters?

They will continue to have tremendous value as producers of content people
want to see and listen to. They will lose the advantage granted to them that
all others have been excluded from the airwaves.

Smart broadcasters will realize that there is huge potential economic value
to being the holder of valued content in an age of connectedness. It is up
to them to figure out how to deliver that value.

28. Does this require everyone to get new radios and TV sets?

No. Existing technologies will continue to work. They will be replaced by
customers as they  we  realize the benefits of the new technology.

29. Will I still be able to watch The West Wing?

Yes. The current broadcasters will continue to provide content we care
about, and we will continue to receive their broadcasts on the technology of
today and tomorrow.

But remember, Open Spectrum isn't just about broadcasting. It's about
connecting all of us so that we can talk, play, argue and laugh together ...
and create our own content that may be better than what we currently get
from the broadcasters.

30. Is Wi-Fi an alternative to Open Spectrum?

No. The Wi-Fi specification enables networks to use slices of spectrum, just
as radios and garage door openers do. Open Spectrum would open up all of
spectrum for Wi-Fi and other applications.

But Wi-Fi is an important specification because it enables within a narrow
band of frequency some of the benefits we'd get with Open Spectrum. Wi-Fi
joins people together in networks that can grow and adapt. But Wi-Fi
networks are relatively low bandwidth (currently at 54Mbps), are short
range, and can't scale the way Open Spectrum permits. For example, Wi-Fi
isn't suitable for networking together thousands of people attending a
conference. With an Open Spectrum policy, other forms of wireless networking
would rapidly emerge.

Nevertheless, Wi-Fi networks are an important development and show the power
of networks that grow from the bottom up.

31. What bearing does this have on the telephone networks?

The current telephone networks are already being challenged by the Internet.
This would intensify that challenge. It would also dramatically solve the
problem of the "last mile," i.e., providing "broadband" connectivity to
households and offices.

32. How does this fit with the FCC's exploration of unlicensed spectrum to
connect rural areas?

The FCC has recently asked for comments on the idea of using unlicensed
spectrum to provide Internet connectivity to rural areas. This is attractive
because running cable out to distant areas is expensive and in some
instances environmentally disruptive. But Open Spectrum would solve this
problem in a single blow without facing the probability that it will be
obsolete in a few years.

33. Who wrote this FAQ?

David Weinberger [mail] did most of the wordsmithing, drawing on content
from Jock Gill [mail], Dewayne Hendricks [mail], and David P. Reed [mail].

34. Where can I learn more?

Here are some links. We'd be happy to hear about more.

Why Open Spectrum Matters, by the people who wrote this FAQ
David Reed's page on Open Spectrum
"Societies of Cooperating Cognitive Solutions" by Jock Gill
"Open Spectrum: The New Wireless Paradigm" by Kevin Werbach
The FCC Spectrum Policy Task Force's page
Lawrence Lessig's Stanford resource page
Lawrence Lessig's conference on spectrum policy
Prior Restraint by Bob Frankston
Net Gains: Will technology make CBS unconstitutional? by Yochai Benkler and
Lawrence Lessig

Jon Lebkowsky
Polycot Consulting L.L.C.

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