Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Open spectrum

In light of the recent end of the FCC's latest spectrum auction, I think it's a good idea to examine the idea of spectrum licensing and the FCC. Currently, the FCC divides up the spectrum between technologies and companies, using its technocratic expertise as a guide. Some of it is unlicensed – like baby monitors and Wi-Fi – but appliances using it must still adhere to certain specifications, intended to eliminate interference. But is this even necessary? Some people think not. Open spectrum backers (including techno-libertarian Larry Lessig) argue that "interference" is all relative, and is not an issue (or would not be an issue with the proper competitive pressures) with technology that can separate the data from the noise. They argue not just for an increase in unlicensed spectrum – which is still subject to government interference – but a complete liberalization of the airwaves.

It might strike some as communistic, since we generally think of the airwaves as a good, and naturally market liberals would want these to be in private hands. However, they are not any old good – they're infinitely divisible, utterly non-excludable, and pretty damn indefensible – unless you have the power of the state. Without a government, it's hard to imagine any sort of collective agreement being made – more likely is that each firm would work individually to project and protect their data stream. In my mind, it's a similar situation to that of intellectual property – we've attached this label of "property" to these things and have neglected the important differences between these goods and traditional physical goods.

And when you think about all the airwaves as fundamentally planned by government, it raises questions as to how truly "natural" our information and entertainment habits really are.

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