Daniel Boone and the Wireless Internet Spectrum Debate

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Bart Preecs

An old pattern seems to be repeating itself. Just a few years ago, the Internet was seen as the most revolutionary communications device since the printing press, with enormous potential for revitalizing civic life and diversifying the flow of information available to rich and poor around the globe. Now commercialization and consolidation threaten to make the Internet just another information shopping mall, with access and content controlled by a shrinking number of large corporations.


Daniel Boone became America's prototype pioneer because he followed a simple recipe. Whenever he could see the smoke from his neighbor's chimney, he moved west. As far as anyone knows, he never went back to clean up or re-forest any of his abandoned homesteads.

In the U.S., technology and media pioneers seem to follow the same recipe.

Every 20 the 30 years, a new communications technology is rolled out, frequently marketed as the solution to the problems created or left unsolved by the previous communications technologies. In the 1950s FM radio was supposed to offer better reception and more diversified content than AM radio. In the 1970s, cable TV was supposed to offer a wider range of choices than the bland offerings of the three broadcast TV networks. In the 1990's, the Internet and the World Wide Web was supposed to offer individual choice, low-cost publishing, and a broader range of diversified, noncommercial content than any other conventional media.

Always, the principle seem to be try something new, never mind going back to fix what might be wrong with the old.

Now an unusual convergence of economic and technology trends is creating a rare opportunity to re-visit an old media homestead and make some dramatic changes.

"Spectrum," the right to send information through the airwaves, is becoming the key resource for the future of the entire communications industry.

Television stations, radio stations, cell phone companies, ambulance and police dispatchers, even satellite signals being uploaded from giant TV network vans or downloaded to rooftop receivers, all depend on the technical ability and the legal right to send or receive electronic signals at varying frequencies and strengths.

Heavily regulated by national governments and international agencies, spectrum is some of the most valuable property in the world. But the rules for creating and regulating this unique form of property have been changing. Since the mid-1980's, spectrum has been auctioned off to the cell-phone industry, usually for billions of dollars. This was a radical change from 50 years earlier, when spectrum was called "the people's airwaves" and the rights to use it were routinely given away -- free -- to radio and television broadcasters.

Now a shortage of spectrum, of frequencies that can be effectively used to communicate, is causing significant conflict among groups that want to use it.

The deployment of wireless broadband is crucial to the development of so-called third-generation Internet services. Technology pioneers like Bill Gates and Craig McCaw are requesting new allocations of spectrum, in order to offer innovative, Internet-based services for wireless devices. These potential new products and services create the possibility of expanded growth and new jobs in a sector of the economy that was already battered by the collapse of the dot com stock boom.

The September 11 terrorist attacks highlighted this issue even further. In the aftermath, emergency officials are pressing telecommunications companies and regulators for ways to give priority to emergency communications. Most potential solutions require a significant increase in the spectrum devoted to emergency communications. No one currently using that spectrum is willing to relinquish it, even for a cause this worthy.


Various reformers and critics have wrung their hands in the past about the impact of U.S. television and radio. Newton Minow, the FCC commissioner who called U.S. television a "vast wasteland" in 1961, wrote in 1991 that the situation was so much worse 30 years later that he worried that TV was doing measurable harm to his grandchildren.

It's easy to make the case that TV, with its emphasis on sex, violence, instant gratification, and relentless materialism, makes the job of every parent, teacher and religious leader in America more difficult. The entire debate about campaign finance reform is over how to pay the ransom for a democratic process currently held hostage by radio and TV broadcasters.

It is one thing for self-appointed critics and reformers without constituencies to suggest a major overhaul of the U.S. broadcasting system. Until recently, even the most passionate critics glumly acknowledged that U.S. broadcasters have one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington and that significant change was almost impossible to imagine.

However, for the first time in modern communications history, people and organizations with real clout face incentives to do something almost never been done before: re-visit decisions made decades earlier about important communications resources.

The pleas of emergency officials for better cell-phone service ring much louder today. The possibility of new jobs and new investment in promising technology looks far more compelling today.

There is a real chance that a coalition of educators, technology companies and Internet activists could at least start a national debate about our decades-old policies of spectrum allocation -- and the old pattern of relying solely on new technology to solve the problems created by earlier technologies.

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