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Spectrum Impossible

Yesterday C-Net ran a good and detailed piece called The coming wireless spectrum apocalypse and how it hits you. It covers the current state of the wireless phone industry and how the AT&T/Verizon duopoly are using their muscle to keep everyone else out of the industry.

While the piece does a good job explaining industry fighting to us mere mortals it still gets captured by the industry’s own view of competition. As a result it never asks the the two really interesting questions about the wireless industry, which are:

1) If spectrum is a finite resource you absolutely need to run a wireless network, then why don’t we treat wireless phones like a utility by building one network and requiring that everyone get fair access to it? We have done this with the wired telephone network for more than a generation.

2) How sure are we that selling exclusive access to wireless spectrum, which is a practice designed in the era of vacuum tube radios, is still the best way to use our wireless resources now that our “radios” are smart phones? WiFi devices use completely unregulated spectrum and are simply smart enough to route around each other when there is interference.

The White Spaces Coalition is a group of tech companies testing devices that use the buffer, or white space, between broadcast TV channels to create a super high speed wireless network. If using smart devices on scraps of spectrum gets us long distance WiFi, what could we build with the spectrum we currently lease to cell phone companies? Or to radio and TV broadcasters for that matter.

The people who make decisions about whether wireless networks should be open to access by competing companies and who choose what rules should govern our use of spectrum in this country all work in one place, the FCC. Something to keep in mind whenever people talk about wireless competition.