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Idealism and realism in spectrum policy

An international treaty document, the Reference Paper that is part of the Fourth Protocol to the General Agreement on Trade in Services, states that spectrum is a scarce resource. It is scarce only because (a) exclusive use of most frequencies is the norm (WiFi is an exception), and (b) the bands for which cheap equipment is manufactured are few. So the scarcity is not “natural,” it is human-created. Therefore Professor Read, as quoted in the NYT, is correct:

Arguing that the nation could run out of spectrum is like saying it was going to run out of a color, says David P. Reed, one of the original architects of the Internet and a former professor of computer science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says electromagnetic spectrum is not finite.

Mr. Reed, who is now senior vice president at SAP Labs, a company that provides business software, explained that there are in fact newer technologies for transmitting and receiving signals so that they do not interfere with one another. That means separating the frequency bands would not be required — in other words, everybody could share spectrum and not run out.

The reason spectrum is treated as though it were finite is because it is still divided by frequencies — an outdated understanding of how radio technology works, he said. “I hate to even use the word ‘spectrum,’ ” he said. “It’s a 1920s understanding of how radio communications work.”

But unless we are able to wave a wand and make all the equipment made for exclusive use vanish along with the multi-billion dollar companies that have staked entire businesses upon them, he is wrong.

While I like ideal worlds to clarify my thinking, I live in the real world. So I have to work with scarce spectrum.

1 Comment to Idealism and realism in spectrum policy

  1. Nihit's Gravatar Nihit
    April 21, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting topic… this this site from Microsoft displays collected data on spectrum usage for three US cities…

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