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.)