Our airwaves, indeed

Tom Evslin is celebrating the FCC’s decision to open up the white spaces between old TV channels to unlicensed use (to create, for example, “wi-fi on steroids,” as Google’s Larry Page has put it).

This is hugely important. It could provide the means to connect more of America. It could provide the competition that assures us both reasonable prices for access and open and unfettered access (for, in a competitive marketplace, the provider that limits our use will be the provider that loses). This will bring more innovation. It will lead to new businesses. It will help educate people. It’s a big deal. Tom’s list of benefits:

* Within a year there could be new, cheap radios and commercial services that make mobile broadband available with greater bandwidth than cable offers today AND at lower prices.
* Mobile phones on these frequencies will be much cheaper to use AND will have much better data capability than they have today.
* Since the US is the first country to make so much desirable spectrum available for open unlicensed use, the door is open for a wave of innovation here and the invention of products and services which will eventually be used around the world.
* Much of the concerns many of us have had about tollgates on the Internet and an end to open interconnection will evaporate since the barrier to providing Internet access will be much lower and the power of the existing cable-telco duopoly diluted.

Note this historic moment: I’m praising the FCC.

(Here is my op-ed on opening up the white spaces.)

And here is my essay for the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the internet as a right:

The internet is a right. We have reached the point at which enabling and assuring open, unfettered, and universal access to the internet should become a hallmark of civilized societies. The Global Agenda Council stands in a position to make this the goal of nations.

In civilized societies, universal education is a right. In some nations, health care is a right. Some other services provided in the common good may require payment but in developed nations are nonetheless considered rights: access to clean water and electricity. In the United States, even telephones are a right, as users pay fees to subsidize the cost of getting lines to all people. In the United Kingdom, television is a right insofar as the government levies a tax to support it. Such rights may be met publicly or privately.

Access to the internet – and open, broadband internet that is neither censored nor filtered by government or business – should be seen, similarly, as a necessity and thus a right. Just as we judge nations by their literacy, we should now judge them by their connectedness.

It is in societies’ enlightened self-interest to enable such access. The WEF Global Agenda Council can demonstrate this to nations by cataloguing, quantifying, and demonstrating the many benefits that will accrue with universal access:

* In business: Jobs will be created. New and higher skills will be learned and used. Companies can find new efficiencies. Entrepreneurism will be fostered (and using web 2.0 tools, less capital – in a capital-starved time – will be needed to start new companies that create jobs and wealth). Innovation will be sparked. With access, jobs may move into once-isolated areas of the world. Businesses can, at the same time, reach worldwide markets.

* In education: Simply making the world’s digital knowledge accessible to and searchable by anyone in a nation is a huge step forward in informing and educating a people. Encouraging popular use of the internet is also a magnet drawing people toward literacy. Connecting whole populations enables anyone connected to become educated. Schools can become disaggregated and reaggregated so students can find classes anywhere and classes can find students anywhere.

* In government: Connectivity will connect citizens with more services and can bring more transparency to government as citizens come to expect accessible and open information. Citizens will become more involved in politics and will be able to coalesce and act around issues and needs.

* In society: We can only speculate on the long-term effect of universal connectivity on society, but creating more ways for more people to connect with each other over greater distances and periods of time will surely have a positive impact on understanding and even friendship.

Though it might seem a bad time to propose such an aggressive goal – in the midst of a financial meltdown – it can also be argued that this is precisely the right time. As governments spend funds on infrastructure to stimulate economies, the financial and societal benefits of building and extending the digital infrastructure – over, for example, roads and airports – would be great. Favoring digital over physical assets will also have the environmental fringe benefit of favoring online communications and collaboration over travel.

Part and parcel of this discussion must be an examination of the definition of openness. The internet is itself an embodiment of free speech: the First Amendment brought to life. By its openness, we may judge a society’s freedom of speech. Gating access against content, applications, and uses must be discouraged. At the same time, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the economics of access: If you use more water, even if having access to it is a right, you pay for it. In some nations, on the other hand, there is no practical limit to the free education one may receive. So what should the economics of a universal and open internet be? There also needs to be a discussion of security for users and for the internet itself.

(See also a very good discussion about this notion here.)

  • arthur

    What? No mention of Obama victory? No mention of huge democratic gains? Are you apolitical all of a sudden?

  • David

    Very well said Arthur. It’s very amusing to see how the blog daddy has gone all silent on us as Obama climbed the mountaintop. What happened Jeffrey? Why not one-single-word-about Obama once he started to lead in the polls?

    I have a feeling that once the “honeymoon” ends for President Obama Jeffrey will be back to concern trolling.

  • Since when do you have the first clue about wireless networking and how to ensure that this spectrum is put to the best use?

    I’m appalled by the arrogance behind this post (as well as Evslin’s) It’s absolutely Palin-esque.

    Clue: before opining about all manner of technical subjects, study and learn. Uninformed opinion is BS.

  • David

    >Clue: before opining about all manner of technical subjects, study and
    >learn. Uninformed opinion is BS.

    Thankfully for us he learned this lesson in the world of politics where he seems to have come to his senses and finally realized that he’s better off not sharing his opinions (*uninformed as they usually were*) with us…

  • As charming as ever, Richard.
    You didn’t say damned thing in those six lines. Would you care to actually say something or just pop off, as usual? That act has long since gotten quite tired.

  • Walter Abbott

    Further real-time evidence heralding the end of “command broadcast” information distribution systems.


    NFL Games Go Wireless

    “In the era of the 52-inch plasma television set, marketers at Sprint Nextel Corp. are banking on football fans to seek out a decidedly smaller viewing experience.

    For the first time Thursday, a National Football League game — the Cleveland Browns vs. the Denver Broncos — will be broadcast on Sprint mobile phones as part of the wireless company’s exclusive partnership with the league. That partnership deal is valued at about $500 million over five years.

    Over the next seven weeks, Sprint will phone-cast the eight games that are televised solely on the NFL Network, the league’s cable channel. For the past three seasons, the NFL has struggled to persuade major cable operators to include its channel in their basic programming packages.”

    “I was taught when I was a young reporter that it’s news when we say it is. I think that’s still true — it’s news when ‘we’ say it is. It’s just who ‘we’ is has changed”David Carr (b. 1956), US Journalist. CNN “Reliable Sources”, Sunday, August 10, 2008.

  • arthur

    I love reading your blog, but your silence on the politics is deafening. Is it sour grapes because your backed horse did not win in the primaries? Is it sour grapes because Obama used your favorite medium, the internets, so effectively? Is it plain racism? Combination of reasons above?
    As a loyal reader, I hope that you break your silence. You are excellent in your views of current events and your lack of posting on the election is a huge disappointment, for me anyway.

  • tdc

    i only wish obama showed more hubris.

  • Rob Crawford

    “Is it plain racism?”

    Because anyone who doesn’t praise Obama sufficiently is a racist.

    God, that’s already gotten old, and he hasn’t even been sworn in.

  • Da Coyote


    By uttering the phrase “Palinesque” you identify yourself as probably the typical lib arts major. If you wanna go at it with respect to comm theory, give me your best shot. Else, go back to your Microsoft machine, do the latest virus update, and let those of us who are real engineers try to undo the upcoming Obamidiocy.

  • Douglas2

    I come here because I find that I’m often interested in what JJ writes about. I suspect I find it interesting because he writes about what he finds interesting. I’m actually a bit put-off by blogs that have gone all “election” on me.
    Anyway, one of the known effects of this FCC decision will be that most (simple majority) of the wireless microphones used in Broadway shows, rock-concerts, churches, lecture halls, and political rallies will stop working reliably — and there is already difficulty with digital TV interfering with them. The people working in these areas don’t want change, and have been lobbying hard against it. So when someone says that its only
    “established broadcasters who fear the competition that
    a much more powerful Internet will bring and telcos who
    would like to preserve their domination of Internet access
    and mobile service”
    who are against it, my blood boils a little. Sure there will be technological fixes in time, but in the meantime my non-profit arts organization has tens of thousands of dollars invested in equipment that is now permanently broken by the government, and my directors will be upset with me when I tell them we can’t do things the way they have been doing them for a long time. It will, of course, be my fault.
    So go ahead and celebrate the FCC making my work environment a living hell.
    I’m not much into conspiracy theories, but I have a strong suspicion that if this decision had come down a week earlier the techs working in live sound and broadcast might have made the last week of the election a rather strange one by turning off all of the wireless mics and IFB’s. We just lost our chance to go all John Galt when we really could have been noticed.

  • Whitehall

    Hope this change goes better than HDRadio. That one has no audience and creates interference that degrades analog FM reception.

    Sounds crappy too, worst than MP3.

  • I predict it won’t last. You seem to have left out the consideration that this is a Bush administration decision, not Obama’s. Mr. Obama has shown himself to be an enemy of free speech and private enterprise. He prefers the way they do things in China.


  • Hale Adams


    First off, let me say that I’m in favor of the FCC’s decision to open that vast expanse of UHF spectrum to unlicensed use. Licensure is too often used as a means to keep “the little guy” out, at least in a commercial setting.

    (Alas, I must admit I’m speaking out of both sided of my mouth on this, as I’m an amateur radio operator, and I don’t like “bootleggers” on our bands. Maybe all the “white space” will lure the doofusses out there off our bands.)

    Ennyhoo…. Access to all this “white space” is a “right”? I’m all in favor, as I said, of unlicensed operation, but the language of “rights” in this case bothers me. It sounds like a call for government to subsidize access to that hunk of spectrum. I don’t like the thought of being taxed for all those subsidies. If you want to play in all that white space, go ahead– just pay for your own damned radios, like I have to pay for mine.

  • Internet access is a right? Really? We may have a reasonable expectation in an advanced society that it be provided by some mechanism (whether public or private or both) but that scarcely means that if it not be provided then someone’s rights are being violated. We have a right to freedom of speech, but no right to expect the government to provide a forum in which to exercise it. We have a right to freedom of association, but no right to expect the government to otherwise facilitate that association.

  • Tim

    “Entrepreneurism will be fostered”

    You’re kidding, right?

    Yes, this is a good move, but of little relevance right about now. Neither I nor anyone I work with would even THINK about starting a business right now, right here.

    That aside, Arthur –

    Throwing around accusations of racism left and right simply causes people to (at best) tune you out, permanently. Or worse – those who decide they’re going to be accused of it anyways start doing things like getting the accusers fired, calling the police on them, and otherwise making life difficult. If you’re going to be obnoxious and operate in bad faith, then people will fight back in any way they can. At that point you’ve left them little choice.

  • Accusations of racism in the style and with the evidence arthur offered are, ironically and paradoxically, racist. Raise your conciousness, arthur!


  • Mike Staples

    At the risk of sounding glib, the problem with unlicensed white space devices is that they are unlicensed. When interference occurs, even in the unlikely event that the FCC involves itself in identifying the source and achieves success in that endeavor, there is little that can practically be done to abate the problem. Confiscate the device if you will, another can readily be purchased. What’s left: making them go to bed early?

    Look at the debacle that CB radio turned into, and consider present-day interference with Coast Guard marine frequencies by truckers illegally using marine transceivers as long-range alternatives to CB.

    At the point that over-the-air digital TV reception is harmed by nearby white space devices, the effect will be unreliable or nonexistent reception, and the TV viewer will be left to guess at the cause. By the time anyone who is equipped to do so tried to locate the source of the problem, the interfering device may be miles away.

    I’m not against the idea of white space devices and improved Internet connectivity – far from it! I just despair at the FCC’s desire to push through this measure without due regard to the ramifications. Their idea of “safe zones” is so naive as to be laughable, and when the inevitable problems occur they will say, as they so often do on other scores, that there is nothing they can do about it.

    The FCC was far more effective when it was an organization run by engineers than it has become since the lawyers took it over.

  • Well, Jeff, I agree that something is getting pretty tired alright. But I would maintain that the “something” in question is the Army of Citizen Engineers/Davids who’ve been carrying Google’s water since the the Net Neutrality debate broke out at the end of 2005. Google has been manipulating these fools to advance its own interests in the regulatory space, and like sheep to the slaughter they’ve been complying regardless of the fact that they have not the slightest appreciation of the technical issues and implications they’ve been seeking in order to suck up to Google and promote their own phony populist brand. This is the same sort of dynamic that brought Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket – you don’t need to be an expert to hold opinions on government. So what if you’ve never heard of the Bush Doctrine and you think the VP runs the Senate – you’re the Voice of the Common Man so come on down and run the government. Or as you said in your Op-Ed in that stellar publication the New York Post: “why don’t we just hand the government over to Google? It’s already organizing our knowledge and taking charge of whole industries. It’d likely do a better job of governing than all the bureaucrats in Washington.”

    In case you don’t know it, that’s an argument for Fascism. Tongue-in-cheek it may be, but it’s not a bit inconsistent with populist demagoguery. Why support White Space re-regulation according to the Wi-Fi model? “Because Google wants it, and I want Google to be happy.”

    The system that the FCC proposes to adopt for the White Spaces does not have the support of wireless engineers. There are much better ways to maximize the public good than to simply adopt the same spectrum rules for the white spaces that we have for Wi-Fi. This is a technical question, not a simply a “David vs. Goliath” question.

    We make very poor use of the spectrum in which Wi-Fi runs because it’s also used by cordless phones, baby monitors, and security cameras, to name just a few uses. We need a spectrum policy for the white spaces that limits their use to packet-data devices that have a smart way of negotiating access with each other. This will enable higher power levels and greater coverage at lower cost. The frequency isn’t magic, it’s the power level and clear channel assessment that counts. It’s not a question of Google vs. the NAB, it’s a question of the Public Good.

    You have no idea what I’m talking about, and neither do your readers. So why do you have an opinion about this subject? Evslin voted for Palin, so that tells me why he does, but you Jeff? Surely there are enough things within the scope of your expertise to carry on about without practicing engineering without a license.

    And to the coward who hides behind the pseudonym “Da Coyote”, I’ll just say: “read my fucking resume.”

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  • BigAl

    Huh? All this talk about WiFi and freedom of the airwaves won’t amount to squat if the Fairness Doctrine gets resurrected from its crypt. And there are enough ghouls out there trying to do just that.

  • arthur

    In my defense, I am not accusing Jeff of racism. I am accusing him of completely ignoring politics on his blog. If I remember correctly, Jeff wrote about politics on daily basis.

    I would like to apologize to Jeff and to readers for saying what I said. I should not have used that phrase.

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  • Andy Freeman

    > So what if you’ve never heard of the Bush Doctrine

    The person who coined the term (the Bush administration doesn’t use it) says that there are three Bush doctrines. Palin asked which one was being asked about and answered wrt it.

    > and you think the VP runs the Senate

    The Constitution says that the VP is President of the Senate. When the VP is otherwise occupied, the President Pro Tempore takes the VP’s place.

    The Constitution doesn’t mention any other VP duties. (The VP is in the line of succession, but that doesn’t put the VP into the executive branch any more than it puts the Speaker of the House, the third person in the succession line, into the executive branch.)

  • Anybody knows what the real speed of these networks will be? Is it enough to stream high definition content, or just a faster 3G network for smart phones?

    my comments at http://www.commentino.com/orim

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