Open Spectrum Victory in US

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Radio spectrum is inherently a commons, a resource that is owned by no one or by the state, but available to all. Too often in the past, that commons has been enclosed – sold off to the highest bidder. Now, it seems, some of the fences are being torn down, in the US at least:

By a vote of 5-0, the FCC formally agreed to open up the "white spaces" spectrum -- the unused airwaves between broadcast TV channels -- for wireless broadband service for the public. This is a clear victory for Internet users and anyone who wants good wireless communications.

That's Google's Larry Page writing on his company's blog. Google is one of many companies that would like to do innovative things with this new spectrum, and the FCC's decision should allow just that:

In its continuing efforts to promote efficient use of spectrum and to extend the benefits of such use to the public, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today adopted a Second Report and Order (Second R&O) that establishes rules to allow new, sophisticated wireless devices to operate in broadcast television spectrum on a secondary basis at locations where that spectrum is open. (This unused TV spectrum is now commonly referred to as
television “white spaces”). The rules adopted today will allow for the use of these new and innovative types of unlicensed devices in the unused spectrum to provide broadband data and other services for consumers and businesses.

The rules represent a careful first step to permit the operation of unlicensed devices in the TV white spaces and include numerous safeguards to protect incumbent services against harmful interference. The rules will allow for both fixed and personal/portable unlicensed devices. Such devices must include a geolocation capability and provisions to access over the Internet a data base of the incumbent services, such as full power and low power TV stations and cable system headends, in addition to spectrum-sensing technology. The data base will tell the white spacedevice what spectrum may be used at that location.

What's important is that the spectrum is unlicensed. That is, you do not need permission to start broadcasting on the permitted frequencies. That does not mean a free-for-all, which would lead to a classic “tragedy of the commons” where the basic resource would be destroyed by selfish behaviour. Instead, as the FCC release explains, there are a number of rules relating to what frequencies may be used at a given location.

Lack of licensing is a crucial feature, because it lets people experiment. It stands in contrast to the older approach, which required potential users to explain and justify every new service. The Internet, which is also effectively a commons that permits unlicensed use subject to broad overall rules designed to protect its existence, is perhaps the best example of how such unfettered innovation can blossom in the right environment. It will be interesting to see what Google (and others) come up with. With luck, their successes will lead to even more open spectrum commons being created around the world.