Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Anarchy on the airwaves

Google has recently launced a campaign to lobby the FCC to free up radio spectrum currently used as whitespace between channels. The main opponents of the move seem to be high-end audio equipment manufacturers, who say that interference would be much more common and difficult to deal with if the space were free to be used by any device.

Ultimately, though, the problem is not insurmountable – technological solutions do exist:

Meanwhile, companies are preparing for the worst. For instance, Lectrosonics is now offering a wider range of frequencies for its wireless microphones.

Until last year, the company's wireless microphones spanned a range of 537 MHz to 768 MHz. Now that a part of that band has been auctioned off, the company has reworked its devices to operate in the 470 MHz to 691 MHz spectrum. It has also added another band, the 944 MHz to 952 MHz spectrum, to the mix.

Those changes haven’t been easy. Over the course of a year, Lectrosonics reallocated engineering resources and spent "several thousand dollars" getting each new product certified by the FCC.

"We have a limited amount of engineering resources and there are hard costs such as FCC licenses that we have had to get," says Winkler.

It's interesting how one of the big costs – FCC licenses – are not reflective of inherent technological issues, but rather the bureaucratic process for allocating spectrum.

Of course, the spectrum itself has no hard limit on use, and can theoretically be divided infinitely. Someone at Intel rebuts broadcasters' claims that allowing the whitespace between channels to be used would damage reception of existing channels by pointing out that the aforementioned audio devices already use the spectrum in question (though broadcasters obviously have bigger reasons to fear competition). The infinite divisibility argument and the idea that individuals can successfully defend their airspace using technology without resorting to top-down allocation are the rationales behind the open spectrum movement.

Google has reason to advocate such a policy, since they are very strong on content but are choked by the monopoly on wireless delivery in America and abroad. Obviously they believe that small amounts of the existing bandwidth, if left free to anyone to use, could be successfully developed and eventually used by Google to push content to consumers while bypassing the traditional wireless gatekeepers. Many hardware companies supports open spectrum, as increasing the ubiquity of wireless communications would increase demand for wireless devices and software.

No comments: