The Spectrum Policy Time Machine

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Since when does setting good spectrum policy require a time machine? Because that’s what the draft House Republican spectrum bill (the “Spectrum Innovation Act of 2011”) does. Look at page 26 of the bill to see what I mean. The bill tries to free up more spectrum for broadband, but it does it in a way that threatens the future of unlicensed spectrum, one of the key things that has made broadband take off.

Millions of people use Wi-Fi every day. It’s one of those ubiquitous technologies that works as a glue holding our proliferating gadgets together. Wireless ISPs use it to connect people to the Internet in places where there might otherwise be poor or no service. Coffee shops and other public places offer it as a basic amenity.

But no one knew about any of this in 1985. That’s the year the FCC first authorized unlicensed use of the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands. When it did that, it took the first step toward transforming parts of the spectrum that were known as the “Industrial, Scientific, and Medical” bands—landfill parts of the spectrum reserved for the waste emissions of scary machines—into what are more commonly known as “unlicensed bands.” Because of this, you can use a Wi-Fi network, a cordless phone, or a baby monitor without having to get an FCC license. You don’t need to learn morse code, or stay away from the seven dirty words, to use these common devices.

But imagine if unlicensed users were somehow required to “bid” for the right to use the spectrum back in 1985. Who, exactly, would show up? Would Apple, who at the time was just shipping the first Macintosh, somehow know that in one possible future nearly its entire product line would depend on unlicensed spectrum use? Would Cisco have the foresight put in a bid? Since at the time that company had only a handful of employees, probably not. And of course Linksys, which they acquired, was not founded until 1995. How about D-Link?  Nope, not founded until 1986.  The only way these guys would have been able to make sure their products could exist would be for their future selves to hop in the DeLorean. Luckily, 1985 was a good year for time travel.

It is dumb to set spectrum policy like this. When you’re planning to open up new space for entrepreneurs, by definition, those entrepreneurs don’t exist yet. Maybe they’re doing something else. Maybe they haven’t been born yet. The point is that they don’t have a seat at the table, and they’re not going to bid on any spectrum, because the entire purpose of this exercise is to bring them into being and not try to extract cash from them.

We should be promoting new, innovative uses of spectrum, not just divvying it among the companies that are most powerful today. One of the most important policy objectives in telecommunications should be to free up more spectrum for unlicensed use. But if the approach taken in this bill becomes law, it will become much harder for new players to shake things up. We shouldn't have to hope for visitors from the future to make sure we don't close off spectrum innovation in the present.

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