Monday, July 22, 2013

Open Spectrum: An Ethical Open Question

My personal dealings with the Federal Communications Commission have been limited to holding a commercial “radio operator” license that qualified me to be the night watchman at a small AM station for two weeks in high school, and holding an amateur radio license, which I put in jeopardy once by building a ham transmitter that splattered signals all over the 40-meter band and got me a “no-no” notice from an FCC monitoring station.  Although I am no longer an active ham, I still have the license, and so I was interested to see a proposal recently that seemed to threaten not only my license, but those of all ham radio operators in the U. S.

The proposal is for moving from the present FCC-mandated allocations of the radio spectrum to something called “open spectrum.”  Before I explain what open spectrum means, I should mention some basics about the radio spectrum and how it is allocated today.

Radio waves are characterized by their frequency.  For example, WRR in Dallas, Texas (one of the oldest stations west of the Mississippi) operates on a frequency of 101.1 MHz.  All the frequencies from less than 100 kHz (one hundred thousand) up to many GHz (billions) are usable for communications under some conditions, but you can’t just keep piling more and more signals onto the same frequencies.  Eventually, interference between signals gets so bad that the whole thing becomes unusable.  A problem like this arose in the 1920s when AM radio broadcasting got off the ground, and led eventually to the formation of the FCC, along with international organizations with similar purposes:  to regulate how each frequency was used. 

Currently, the FCC mandates in most cases exactly who can use what frequencies and how, and issues licenses to the authorized users, whether they be hams, radio stations, or wireless hubs that link computers and cellphones.  I said “in most cases”:  there are a few spectrum segments that are “license-free” and anyone can use these for anything as long as they follow a few general rules.  The FCC in recent years has also held a limited number of auctions, which is a baby step toward one form of open-spectrum idea.

You can think of the various open-spectrum proposals as themselves spread out along a spectrum.  At one end is the old-fashioned central-control approach that the FCC used prior to about 1985:  nobody does anything without being told exactly where and how to do it by the FCC.  At the other end is the (impractical) libertarian extreme of no regulations by anyone anywhere, and everybody just does the best they can.  No one seriously advocates that extreme either, because it would threaten with disabling  interference the investments of many billions of dollars by operators of cellphone systems, wireless and broadcast networks, and so on. 

The most viable-looking forms of open-spectrum plans propose something like the following, which was broached in a recent issue of National Review by Christopher DeMuth.  One day the FCC gets up in the morning and declares that everyone who currently holds a license henceforward owns property rights in that portion of the spectrum licensed to them.  The licensees can freely buy and sell their spectrum chunks and use them for anything they like, and the only role the FCC will play is like the land-records office of a county:  just keeping track of who owns what.  DeMuth says that this would free up a lot of spectrum that is currently misallocated under the old rules, such as the underutilized spectrum in the UHF TV bands.  These vast regions of largely empty MHz were originally allocated in the 1950s to make up for defects in the crude TV tuners of the day.  But today’s spread-spectrum and software-radio approaches could exploit these regions much more effectively, if there were only a way to get at them.  DeMuth claims that the form of open-spectrum policy he advocates would do this and more.

The ethical aspects of open-spectrum notions comes into play when you consider the radio spectrum as a limited public resource, similar to a national forest.  There is only so much of it available in a given geographic area, and if you trash it, you’ll have a lot of problems and it will affect everybody one way or another, including those who will not be able to afford their present spectrum allocations under the privatizing style of open-spectrum proposal.  The parties who I am concerned about in the free-market open-spectrum approach are non-profit individuals and organizations such as radio amateurs (whose licenses explicitly forbid them to do anything with their hobby for pay), scientists such as radio astronomers, non-profit agencies of various kinds, and other special cases such as emergency communications entities with limited budgets. 

A different open-spectrum proposal by Professor Eli Noam at Columbia University would take a less radical approach.  Instead of buying and selling, spectrum users would pay rent based on demand, and the rental fees would go to the government.  Under this proposal, the non-profit entities could receive protection from the vicissitudes of the market by having their licenses for free, courtesy of the FCC, much as the situation is now.  But most of the spectrum would be turned over to a market-based approach where the more valuable segments would be more costly to use.  This idea does most of what the private-ownership concept does, but leaves a slightly larger role for the government to do what I think is an appropriate thing:  to guard the rights of those who cannot defend themselves on an economic basis, but who nevertheless perform useful functions in society. 

At the risk of getting more complaints about mentioning politics, I will say that neither of these open-spectrum proposals seems to stand much of a chance of getting adopted under an administration which generally favors top-down approaches to regulation.  But I could be wrong, and if enough people of different political stripes get behind the open-spectrum concept, it could actually happen.  But I hope a form is adopted which would protect the rights and privileges of those who would no longer be able to afford to use the spectrum under the totally free-market approach. 

Sources:  Christopher DeMuth’s article “Open Skies and Open Spectrum” appeared in the July 15, 2013 issue of National Review, pp. 32-36.  Mr. DeMuth is a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank, which is also where Harold Furchgott-Roth works, the author of a paper which embodies the open-spectrum proposal Mr. DeMuth describes.  Eli Noam’s earlier open-spectrum paper “Taking the Next Step Beyond Spectrum Allocation:  Open Spectrum Access,” written in 1995, is available at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on open spectrum. 

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