Goodbye, Spectrum

Goodbye, Spectrum

Kevin Werbach

Byline: Kevin Werbach

It’s spectrum, spectrum, spectrum,” promised FCC Chairman Michael Powell, describing the commission’s agenda for the coming months. Powell is right about one thing: Spectrum reform is the most significant opportunity facing the telecom industry. But the problem is that the reform we need is to stop talking about spectrum.

There is really no such thing as spectrum. Radio waves oscillate at characteristic frequencies, but they do not pass through any medium. The devices that transmit and receive wireless signals are all that matter.

When the current wireless policy regime was established in 1927, the only viable means for transmitters to coexist was to assign each a specific frequency. Today, there are many ways to share frequencies, including spread-spectrum, ultra-wideband, smart antennas and software-defined radio. Yet the law hasn’t caught up with the technology.

Both the current policy framework and the most prominent alternative rely on the mistaken idea of spectrum as an owned resource. Today spectrum is owned by the government. Under an “exclusive property rights” model, spectrum would be owned by private parties. Neither approach creates the right incentives to enhance capacity. Any predefined restrictions on who can transmit will preclude some communication.

A solution is to borrow concepts from domains of law not focused on ownership, such as tort. A tort is an accident or injury. If I knock down a cellular carrier’s tower, it can sue me for interrupting its signals. Why not use the same mechanism when the carrier thinks my transmissions have the identical impact?

The basis of a tort-like system would be a universal communications privilege. Owners of wireless devices would be entitled to transmit however they desired. Those who felt harmed could sue for damages, and the legal system would determine when one person’s actions were too great a burden on others. The key is that the system would be decentralized. No one would decide ahead of time which transmissions to allow. Existing frequency-based allocations could be left in place. Fear of being sued, and the cost of suing, would create beneficial incentives to route around potential collisions. By contrast, license-holders currently have no incentives to make their devices smarter.

This approach doesn’t assume that wireless capacity is infinite, only that there is room for more communication than occurs today, and that computers will continue to get smarter. Those are pretty safe bets.


Occupation: Technology analyst and founder, Supernova Group; former Counsel for New Technology Policy at the FCC

Location: Villanova, Pa.

Current reading: “Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time” by Peter Louis Galison

Hobbies: Blogging, cooking, watching sports

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Next project: Second child due in December

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