Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Battle Over Wireless Spectrum...

Although it may not be the sexiest topic, one of the most important issues facing the future development of the internet is how the FCC allocates wireless spectrum. I'll try to keep this as simple and non-mind-numbingly-boring as possible (because it will affect all of us more than you realize).

Here's how things work. The FCC each year decides who gets to use the airwaves - whether for radio, TV, or some other purpose. They do this because a long time ago it was ruled that the public owns the airwaves, not private companies, and therefore the government (occasionally thought of as the instrument of The People) should be responsible for deciding who should have the rights to use those airwaves. How do they make such decisions? They grant the licenses based on whoever can best serve "the public interest, convenience, or necessity".

Still with me? Ok, now as this Wired article reports, there is currently a huge battle over who should get the rights to use a certain part of the spectrum to offer wireless data services. This affects cell phones, Blackberries and Palms, and wireless internet (wi-fi) connectivity. On one side of the debate are the big telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon, who want to "keep protocols closed, and control what you can connect to the network". Their primary argument is that the government should not over-regulate the industry.

On the other side of the debate are Silicon Valley tech companies like Google, a consortium of consumer groups, and a startup named Frontline Wireless. They argue that that part of the spectrum should be an open access network, "which means it would be open to any company that wants to lease it, and to any device or service that's capable of running on it, whether it's the iPhone or Skype."

Here's an example to help put this in plain English and demonstrate why this will affect your life. Next month when Apple comes out with its highly-touted iPhone, only AT&T Wireless subscribers will be able to use it. If you're a Verizon customer then you lose out. Doesn't that stink? Wouldn't it make more sense that if I pay Verizon every month for cell service, shouldn't I be able to buy any cell phone I like, regardless of manufacturer, and use it with my Verizon service?

Imagine if, in order to watch NBC, you were only allowed to buy NBC-manufactured television sets? Imagine if, instead of an open internet, you had to choose between a "Dell internet" versus a separate "HP internet" versus a separate "IBM internet", where if you bought one of those computers you'd have no choice which internet to participate in? Imagine if, in order to use Microsoft Windows, you were able to buy only Microsoft software and nobody else's? (Actually, maybe that's a bad example.)

The point here is that the services should be kept separate from the devices. Bundling them together kills any notion of market competition - leading to higher prices, poorer quality service, and a lack of new innovations. Making the network "open access", on the other hand, would reduce barriers to market entry, increase product variety and consumer choice, reduce prices, and greatly improve the existing state of affairs for consumers of wireless services in a tremendous number of other ways.

Certainly, that better describes what's in "the public interest".
  

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