Spectrum reform





Some observations on spectrum policy reform: Property, commons and beyond ( Posted May 2006)

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Spectrum reform is a matter of global concern at present. The radio spectrum represents the new frontier of the digital revolution, what we may call "the Invisible Wealth of Nations". 

We need to engage wider public debate upon the future of the strategic national resource of the radio spectrum, for the definition and institutionalization of rights of access to the radio spectrum is one of the keys to our future communications ecology. 

The following is an overview of current technology and regulatory trends, unleashing the wireless revolution and the prospects of an open future for spectrum.

Samuel Morse commemoration, in the shadow of BT Tower, London (2007)

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  • A new technological paradigm!
  • A new regulatory paradigm?
  • The need for a synthesis
  • Balancing the economic, technological and public policy tools for spectrum management policy 
  • Wi-Fi demonstrates the value of licence-exempt spectrum access 
  • Realizing the Digital Dividend?
  • The Janus face of wireless technology

 A new technological paradigm! 


Leading technologists concur in their view of the emergence of a new technological paradigm for digital radio technologies, of "a whole raft of new freedoms" beyond the "interference" restrictions of the analogue past. 

Theirs is the voice for a new approach in spectrum management policy, for a new paradigm of shared spectrum use across the radio spectrum as opposed to the legacy property real estate model of the management of spectrum according to bands.

It is a logical leap of the technologists imagination to say that the regulatory authority may now pass to the radio device itself, as opposed to a central government authority, for new digital radio technologies have a host of methods for enabling shared spectrum use.

A new regulatory paradigm?


Whilst agreement upon the shape of a new regulatory paradigm remains fugitive, there is nevertheless international debate upon the issues of spectrum reform to facilitate an adaptive regulatory environment that is fit for purpose for the digital era. 

Government policy in many countries - notably the UK- has affirmed a "de-regulatory" agenda and the use of market mechanisms (auctions and spectrum trading) to rationalize spectrum allocation and rights; and this may be related to the wider "de-regulatory" agenda of government for market-led policy solutions. 

A strong advocacy voice has emerged for a "commons" or "open spectrum" approach, following the explosion of licence-exempt Wi-Fi as a mass phenomenon and proof of the innovation dynamic and the social and economic spin-offs of an open approach to spectrum. 


The need for a synthesis


Whilst there has been tendancy to polarize positions between the "property" and the "commons" models, international debate has focussed upon the need for a mixed, evolutionary approach to spectrum management policy. 

Eli Noam has argued for a synthesis: "The areas of commonality, however, permit a synthesis. No, they require it. This is not the subject of idle academic speculation, but one of collective head-scratching on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific. All of us agree that an overhaul of the present system of allocating spectrum is a key task for the new economy. But what should take its place?" 

Likewise the recent work of Kalle Konstan in the United States has articulated a continuum of spectrum rights beyond the binary property/commons model, with the novel recommendation for a score card system to reward spectrum efficiency and "good citizenship". 


Balancing the economic, technological and public policy tools for spectrum management policy


Beyond the question of technology and spectral efficiency, there is of course the issue of economic interests and social policy aims. 

Spectrum rights and the weighing up of stakeholder interests is not a trivial matter, and the contended space of spectrum politics is not likely to be settled any time soon. We may note Ronald Coase's seminal paper The Federal Communications Commission (1959), credited with having ushered in the economistic property rights model for spectrum management policy, and his receipt of a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1991. Should we today posit a digital solution to our analogue problems, in the cybernetic scenario of an emergent and higher intelligence at the technological level of spectrum-sharing wireless devices? So that polite technical protocols embedded within the radio device itself win-out over the polite "social protocols" that are the recourse when attempting to negotiate a boundary dispute amongst contiguous radio users (-say in the event of two overlapping community broadband wireless systems in a rural area).  

Critics have pointed out that current approaches to spectrum management policy have been focussed upon the economic policy tool, with a lesser regard to the technology and public policy tools. 


Wi-Fi demonstrates the value of licence-exempt spectrum access


Nevertheless the success of Wi-Fi has served to highlight the value of licence-exempt access to the radio spectrum and demonstrates social and economic pay-offs beyond an exclusive property rights model. 

The FCC's Spectrum Policy Task Force (2002) provided a landmark report for spectrum policy reform and the institutionalization of licence-exempt rights of spectrum access in addition to the traditional command and control and exclusive property rights. 

The UK regulator Ofcom has also paid increasing attention to licence-exempt spectrum use, from the 2005 Spectrum Framework Review to the "2006, year of the licence-exempt spectrum review". 


Realizing the Digital Dividend? 


On a topical note we may highlight Ofcom's Digital Dividend Review (DDR), which will run through 2006. 

Ofcom's terms of reference for the DDR Review includes wireless broadband as one possible use of the so-called "digital dividend" resulting from released UHF broadcast spectrum. 

In May 2006 Open Spectrum UK released a joint press release: "The Communications Management Association and Open Spectrum UK agree: Wireless broadband for underserved areas is the Digital Dividend's best use". We look forward to engaging further debate on the Digital Dividend Review.


The Janus face of wireless technology 


From a historical perspective we may muse upon the Janus face of wireless technology evolution, the changing technology-regulatory options, and our current crossroads location. The frontier years of wireless technology innovation were essentially a free-for-all commons, in which a Marconi was free to experiment across the entire electromagnetic spectrum bands with unlimited power restrictions. In the wake of the Titanic Disaster national governments sought to control the radio spectrum, responding both to issues of interference and a new state command and control agenda as the capabilities of the new technology became apparent (in the era of military naval power). 

The digital revolution in radio technologies ushers in a new era of innovation, with unforeseen and unintended consequences such as the Wi-Fi explosion of licence-exempt spectrum access. A new era of spectrum sharing capabilities has already emerged at the technology level (- spread spectrum, cognitive radios, "ultra wideband", new antenna technologies, etc.). So that it is a logical leap of the technologists imagination to say that the regulatory authority may now pass to the radio device itself, as opposed to a central government authority. 

Thus the regulatory regime has been outpaced by technology change, and is now in the process of playing catch-up. Paul Baran long ago spoke of "the glacial pace of regulatory change", and the transition to a new common sense arrangement is a matter of decades rather than years. Regulatory thinking has remained burdened by legacy thinking along the lines of "Titanic" collission avoidance (- as witness recent claims of "the tragedy of the commons", a mythological construct of the incumbents imagination that diverges from the historical record of human communities and shared common resources). It may be contended that it is the regulatory regime itself that requires a course correction, away from the closed models of the analogue past to the open models of the digital present. Meanwhile the digital communications revolution continues apace, and just as in the days of Marconi the technology is now increasingly in the hands of the innovators.


Some Open Spectrum links 



John Wilson, May 2006