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Radio Revolution

The Coming Age of Unlicensed Wireless

By Kevin Werbach


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P U B L I C K N OW L E D G E . O R G
Radio Revolution
The Coming Age of Unlicensed Wireless

By Kevin Werbach


Washington, DC
Kevin Werbach is the founder of the Supernova Group, a technology analysis and consulting firm.
He advises organizations on the strategic and legal implications of emerging trends in communications,
digital media and software. As Counsel for New Technology Policy at the Federal Communications
Commission from 1994 to 1998, he helped develop the United States Government's e-commerce
policy, shaped the FCC's approach to Internet issues, and authored Digital Tornado, a seminal analysis
of the Internet's impact on telecommunications policy. He has also served as editor of the influential
publication Release 1.0. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Wired, Harvard
Law Review, Slate, Red Herring, and Business 2.0, among other publications, and he appears frequently
as a commentator in print and broadcast media.

Radio Revolution is the second publication Kevin Werbach has authored for the New America Foundation.
His Working Paper, "Open Spectrum: The New Wireless Paradigm" was published in October of 2002
and is available at

The New America Foundation is a non-partisan, non-profit, public

policy institute in Washington, D.C. Relying on a venture capital
EW ME RICA approach, the Foundation invests in outstanding individuals and ideas
F O U N D A T I O N that transcend the conventional political debate. Through its Fellowship
Program and Strategic Initiatives, New America sponsors a wide range of research, published writing,
conferences, and events. New America’s Spectrum Policy Program advocates a more fair, efficient, and
democratic allocation of the public airwaves. Many additional publications on this topic, including
New America’s Citizen’s Guide to the Airwaves, can be found at

Public Knowledge is a public-interest advocacy organization dedicated

to fortifying and defending a vibrant information commons. This
Washington, D.C.-based group works with a wide spectrum of stakeholders – libraries, educators,
scientists, artists, musicians, journalists, consumers, software programmers, civic groups, and enlight-
ened businesses – to promote the core conviction that some fundamental democratic principles and
cultural values – openness, access, and the capacity to create and compete – must be given new
embodiment in the digital age.

Nigel Holmes, who is principal of Explanation Graphics,, created four original
illustrations for this report; two of his illustrations from the Citizen’s Guide to the Airwaves are reprinted
here as well. In addition, Donald Norwood Design created the layout and design of the report.

Matt Barranca, a Program Associate at the New America Foundation, wrote the WISP profile side-
bars. The Acoustic Analogy sidebar was adapted from New America’s forthcoming “The Cartoon
Guide to Government Spectrum Policy: What if the Government Regulated the Acoustic Spectrum
the Way it Regulates the Electromagnetic Spectrum?” by J.H. Snider. Hannah Fischer led the copy-
editing and production efforts and was assisted by New America’s Michael Calabrese, J.H. Snider,
Matt Barranca, and Max Vilimpoc. Spectrum experts Dewayne Hendricks, Anthony Townsend,
Patrick Leary, and Mark McHenry provided valuable feedback for some of the technical content
of this report.

We thank the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Arca Foundation, and the Joyce
Foundation for their support for New America Foundation’s Spectrum Policy Program. Without
their support, this report would not have been possible.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

License. To view a copy of this license, visit or
send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

Part I: Introduction ........................................................................................1

Wireless Fundamentals ...................................................................................2
Believe in Magic ..............................................................................................2

Part II: Wireless Fundamentals .............................................................5

Basic Concepts .................................................................................................5
The Role of Government ................................................................................11

Part III: Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic .................13

The Traditional Approach .............................................................................13
When the Devices Get Smart ........................................................................14
Survey of Dynamic Wireless Techniques......................................................16
Implications of Dynamic Approaches ..........................................................19
WiFi as a Case Study.....................................................................................22

Part IV: The Unlicensed World ............................................................25

The Spectrum of Spectrum-Use Regimes .....................................................25
Current Unlicensed Products ........................................................................27
Success Stories ..............................................................................................30

Part V: Future Scenarios ..........................................................................37

Expanding the Space of Possibilities...........................................................37
The Last Wireless Mile ..................................................................................39
Interoperable Public Safety Communications.............................................40
Adaptive Mobile Phones ...............................................................................40
Personal Broadcast Networks .......................................................................41

Part VI: Policy Recommendations.....................................................43

Part VII: Conclusion ....................................................................................47
Bibliography .............................................................................................................49


e stand at the threshold of a could be implicated: competition; inno-

W wireless paradigm shift. New

technologies promise to replace
scarcity with abundance, dumb termi-
vation; investment; diversity of program-
ming; job creation; equality of access;
coverage for rural and underserved areas;
nals with smart radios able to adapt to and promotion of education, health care,
their surroundings, and government- local communities, public safety, and
defined licenses with flexible sharing of national security. Yet the benefits of the
the airwaves. Early examples suggest paradigm shift are not guaranteed.
that such novel approaches can provide Exploiting the radio revolution will
affordable broadband connections to a require creativity and risk-taking by both
wide range of users. the private and public sectors. At every
These are not just incremental step, there will be choices between pre-
advances. The fundamental assumptions serving the status quo and unleashing
governing radio communication since the forces of change. The right answers
its inception no longer hold. The static will seem obvious only in hindsight.
wireless paradigm is giving way to The only way to appreciate the
dynamic approaches based on cooperat- opportunity before us is to comprehend
ing systems of intelligent devices. It is the fundamentals of radio communica-
time for policy-makers to consider how tion, and the profound ways they are
regulation should change in response. changing. For all its significance to daily
The radio revolution is the single life and economic activity, wireless tech-
greatest communications policy issue of nology is poorly understood. This paper
the coming decade, and perhaps the seeks to explain the established “static”
coming century. The economics of wireless paradigm, the emerging
entire industries could be transformed. “dynamic” alternative, and the implica-
Every significant public policy challenge tions of the coming revolution.


Wireless Fundamentals Unfortunately, wireless communication remains

Wireless. The very word belies its significance. deeply misunderstood and under-appreciated. Basic
Wireless communication is defined by what it is concepts like spectrum and interference suffer
not, like the horseless carriage or the fat-free from widespread misconceptions. Technological
muffin.1 Yet the real value of a satellite television developments of recent decades have not pene-
broadcast, a WiFi connection to a laptop, or a trated the public consciousness, even as the fruits
mobile phone call from your car to your mother of these developments become part of daily life for
isn’t the absence of dangling wires. Mobility, hundreds of millions of people. The great para-
portability, ubiquity, and affordability are all digm shift from static to dynamic wireless commu-
enhanced when signals pass through the air rather nication has barely registered in business and
than through strands of policy circles. Just as economists know that infor-
“The existing legal copper or optical fiber. mation technology must have a role in productivity
Talking on a mobile growth but have trouble finding it in their statis-
and policy framework for phone is different, and in tics, the wireless industry is experiencing a trans-
many ways better, than formation that even many of its own experts do not
spectrum management using a landline connec- fully appreciate.
tion. If it weren’t, more
has not kept pace with than one billion people Believe in Magic
wouldn’t have signed up In the words of legendary science fiction author
the dramatic changes for mobile phone service, Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently advanced tech-
despite the alternative of a nology is indistinguishable from magic.”2 Wireless
in technology and century-old wired phone communication is a form of magic. Words and pic-
industry. tures fly over invisible pathways with near instanta-
spectrum use.” Wireless communica- neous speed. We control devices at a distance, with
tion is the foundation of no apparent means of connection. Scores of sig-
— WHITE HOUSE MEMO TO industries generating hun- nals, carrying many different types of messages,
FEDERAL AGENCIES, JUNE 2003 dreds of billions of dollars traverse the air simultaneously. A time traveler
in revenue and selling from the Middle Ages would surely see divine
hundreds of millions of intervention – or witchcraft – all around.
devices every year. It is crucial to how we commu- Yet for us, wireless communication is a familiar
nicate, work, learn, entertain ourselves, access form of magic. It drives the radios we have had in
health care, and protect our nation. It is also our homes since our grandparents’ day, the mobile
heavily regulated everywhere in the world. phones that many of us use to communicate, the
Governments today face critical decisions con- televisions we watch an average of seven hours
cerning the future of wireless communication. Is each day, the remote controls that start those TVs,
there a “spectrum shortage,” and if so, how can it and even the throwaway boxes that open our
be alleviated? Should more spectrum be set aside garage doors. This familiarity breeds contentment.
for “unlicensed” uses? Should spectrum licensees We think we understand how wireless communica-
be given property rights to resell or otherwise tion works. We don’t.
control their spectrum more thoroughly? Do we Our intuitions about wireless, by and large, are
need different rules to deal with interference? mistaken. They are based on outdated technologies
Should new “open spectrum” technologies be and inaccurate analogies. If we hope to move
allowed to “underlay” or “interweave” with exist- forward in exploitation of the airwaves, we must
ing licensed services? Can government, military, take a step back. We must understand wireless com-
and public safety spectrum be managed more munication for what it really is. And then we must
effectively? These questions will shape the com- re-evaluate our assumptions about what it could be.
munications environment of the 21st century. This paper presents a set of analogies to help

Radio Revolution

explain the basic physics of radio, and the radical broadcast music concerts. If these scientific giants
shift that emerging technologies represent. The could be so wrong about their own creations, might
strangeness of wireless communication vanishes we not be wrong in our assumptions about wireless?
when we see that it is no different than acoustic This is not mere idle speculation. Decisions
communication, otherwise known as speech. made in the 1920s to zone spectrum by service
Paradigm shifts are both difficult and essential and to assign exclusive
for progress.3 Copernicus and Galileo showed that licenses to users have A huge market sits atop
the Earth revolves around the sun, contrary to the defined the contours of
perceived wisdom of the day. Eventually their view wireless communication the existing regulatory
prevailed, launching an age of extraordinary dis- ever since. A huge market
covery. In the last century, quantum mechanics sits atop the existing framework, which in turn
overthrew the long-established Newtonian world- regulatory framework,
view. A hundred years of subsequent physics exper- which in turn sits atop sits atop conceptual and
iments confirm that our universe contains no such conceptual and technical
thing as solid matter or definite cause and effect. assumptions. Alter those technical assumptions.
These ideas are so weird that most of us simply assumptions, and we can
refuse to accept them. We live in the familiar alter the framework. Alter Alter those assumptions,
classical environment of our commonsense aware- the framework, and the
ness. At the same time, we blithely accept tech- market could become and we can alter the
nologies such as the integrated circuit and the laser, something far greater than
which could not exist without the scientific fruits it is today. Maintain the framework. Alter the
of the alien quantum world. status quo or worse, and
The new dynamic paradigm reveals that wireless the opposite might result. framework, and the
communication is more magical than we assume. “Unlicensed” wireless
More than one service can occupy the “same” communications systems market could become
spectrum, in the same place, at the same time. The are the manifestation of
frequencies that now carry one signal could some- the dramatic change from something far greater
day carry thousands...or billions. There could be as the static to the dynamic
many video broadcasters as today there are mobile paradigm. The word than it is today.
phone subscribers. Government could cease the unlicensed, like the word
frustrating and inefficient task of parceling out wireless, emphasizes what is missing rather than
spectrum, and instead allow users to share the the true significance of the concept. What is so
airwaves without licensing. Broadband Internet extraordinary about unlicensed devices is what
connections could be far more ubiquitous and they can do, and the incentives they create
affordable. Innovation could proceed by leaps and for innovation and growth. Already, wireless
bounds rather than a hesitant, drawn-out shuffle. Internet service providers (WISPs) and non-profit
Appreciating the potential of wireless technology community networks are using unlicensed systems
has always been difficult. When Guglielmo Mar- to deliver broadband connectivity where it was
coni invented the radio, he envisioned it being used otherwise unavailable. Several are profiled in
for person-to-person communication, not one-to- sidebars throughout this paper. In the future,
many broadcasting. Alexander Graham Bell unlicensed systems may support more significant
invented the telephone while developing tools to new communications scenarios, which are detailed
help deaf people, and thought it would be used to in the last section.

Wireless Fundamentals

Basic Concepts such as walls or the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Secret Life of Radio Waves Their susceptibility to such obstacles
A wireless communications system depends on the frequency, bandwidth,
involves one or more transmitters and and power of the transmission.
one or more receivers. There is nothing The point of this physics lesson is
in the middle. Transmitters radiate, and that most of the topics spectrum policy
receivers receive, within a certain range concentrates on, such as “interference”
of frequencies known as the radio fre- and “spectrum,” are value judgments
quency spectrum. However, these are based on our uses of wireless communi-
properties of the equipment, not some cation. Radio waves do not bounce off
distinct medium the signals pass one another, or cancel each other out.
through. By the same token, what gov- When two or more signals share the
ernments regulate are the capabilities of same space at the same time, it can be
transmitters, and to a lesser extent difficult for receivers to distinguish
receivers, rather than the spectrum itself. them, just as the human ear has
Radio waves are a form of electro- difficulty focusing on two simultaneous
magnetic radiation, like lasers or light- sound sources. In practical terms, the
ning bolts. “Radio frequency” signals TV picture gets fuzzy or the mobile
oscillate at frequencies between about 3 phone drops a call (see Figure 1).
kilohertz (kHz) and 100 gigahertz We call this interference. The effect is
(GHz). Their propagation characteris- identical to what happens when you try
tics are well-understood by physicists. In to listen to a radio broadcast and a CD
free space, radio waves can propagate at the same time. The sounds still reach
indefinitely, with declining power over your ear, but you may have trouble sort-
distance, unless dissipated by obstacles ing them out.

Wireless Fundamentals

The Acoustic Analogy* nals, government regulates the electromagnetic

spectrum to minimize interference in ways that would
The sound waves used in ordinary speech are analo- be inconceivable for acoustic communications.
gous to the radio waves used in wireless communica- Dynamic wireless systems are closing the gap
tion. Both are radiation employed to send messages between acoustic and radio communication. Newer
between transmitters and receivers. The acoustic devices employ sophisticated computer processing to
spectrum involves lower frequencies than the radio encode and decode wireless signals. They also employ
frequency spectrum, but this has no effect on the cooperative techniques and adaptive mechanisms
physics involved. Our ears are tuned to pick up that bring to mind the social behavior of human
acoustic waves, just as radio receivers are tuned to beings. The more wireless systems can discriminate
receive radio waves. And our vocal chords produce the way the human ear does, the less regulation is
acoustic waves, just as radio transmitters produce needed to avoid confusion.
radio waves. Imagine a crowd of people at a football stadium.4
The major difference between acoustic and radio Though thousands of them are talking at the same
communication is that humans and other animals time, many of them screaming at the top of their
have evolved exquisitely sophisticated tools for encod- lungs, there is no need for regulation to ensure effec-
ing and interpreting speech. Our vocal apparatus and tive communication. There isn’t even a need for rules
ears are magnificently precise yet highly adaptive. to ensure that the public address system can be heard
Standing behind them is the human brain, the most over the thousands of independent voices. A private
powerful computing device ever created. Our brains regime of property rights to speak in the stadium is
can pick out sound waves from the surrounding just as superfluous as a government licensing system.
background noise and quickly interpret them with Our mouths and ears are sufficiently adaptive to
phenomenal accuracy. We take all this for granted, separate signals from noise when both parties are
because speech is so basic to our very existence. trying to communicate. This despite the fact that the
Radios have historically been far less intelligent acoustic spectrum is far narrower than the radio
than the human systems for spectrum, and our biological
voice communication. In partic- No talking in this stadium! senses are much less precise
ular, radio receivers are simple Violators will be thrown in jail! than today’s digital communi-
devices that tune to a specific cations devices. When transmit-
frequency. Because radio devices ters and receivers are as smart as
haven’t been smart enough to dis- humans, the best rules to prevent
tinguish among overlapping sig- interference are no rules at all.

* Adapted from J. H. Snider, “The Cartoon Guide to Federal Spectrum Policy: What if the Government Regulated
the Acoustic Spectrum the Way it Regulates the Electromagnetic Spectrum,” New America Foundation, Forthcoming.

Radio Revolution

munications.5 Only so many radio stations,

TV channels, phone conversations, or
Internet connections can successfully
operate at once. However, this number is
not fixed. Marconi, the inventor of radio,
originally thought that only one signal
could be transmitted in a given geographic
area, because other radios would interfere
with it. He later developed a technique for
adding capacity based on the principle that
tuning forks can be made to vibrate at the
same frequency across distances. Using this
FIGURE 1 – NOTIONS OF INTERFERENCE: When two or more signals model, one radio signal can be associated
share the same space at the same time, some receivers have difficulty with a carrier wave of a particular fre-
distinguishing them and interference can result. quency, and additional radios on different
frequencies can operate in the same area.
In effect, Marconi figured out how to use
Interference among wireless systems sounds similar frequency to multiplex radio signals. Each station
to what happens when a landline telephone call got its own unique frequency: hence the familiar
generates an “all circuits are busy” message. In radio call numbers like 102.7, 88.5, or 97.1. Because
reality, the two situations are quite different. In the frequency division was the only viable means of
landline case, the connection literally stops at an operating multiple simultaneous transmitters when
overloaded phone company switch. The call radio developed as a commercial service, it became
reaches that point and goes no farther. In wireless, the basis for government radio policy. Regulating
the signal keeps on going. Only the useful informa- radio meant regulating frequencies, by parceling
tion is lost, not the actual radio waves. out the usable spectrum to licensees and service
This seemingly arcane distinction is critical. For categories. And so it remains today. We don’t use
the blocked phone switch, nothing the caller or the the same numbers to identify TV channels or
called party can do makes any difference. The elec- mobile phone networks, but these systems are
trical or optical signal terminates in the middle of assigned frequencies in a similar way.
the network. In the wireless case, the signal gets to Frequency division, however, is not the only
its destination but cannot be understood. If the means of multiplexing radio signals.6 Another
transmitter or receiver were smarter, the same possibility is time. The government could have
signal might be intelligible. Better technology at allowed each broadcaster to transmit only during
the endpoints can reconstruct useless noise back a certain hour of the day, for example. Frequency
into useful information. division was obviously a better solution, both on
In other words, change the communications capacity and practical grounds. In other cases,
devices or the regulatory environment, and you though, time division makes sense. Some mobile
change the capacity of the system. Therefore, any phone systems, for example, chop up their licensed
statement about interference or spectrum scarcity frequencies into split-second time slots, and
assumes a particular set of technical and regulatory interweave digital communications signals among
conditions. them.7 In addition to time and frequency, spatial
multiplexing can be done based on the three-
Capacity dimensional relative location of the transmitter
As the previous section demonstrates, interference and the angle at which a signal hits an antenna.
matters because of its implications for capacity. But again, spectrum regulation talks primarily
Capacity is the essential metric for wireless com- about frequencies.

Wireless Fundamentals

These multiplexing techniques, along with one use or another. Any new service, such as digital
improvements in tuners and signal processors, are television or third-generation (3G) mobile phone
the reason the radio spectrum can now accommo- networks, requires that incumbents be “cleared”
date services such as television, mobile telephony, out of existing bands to make room. On the other
satellite radio, and wireless Internet connectivity hand, if we actually sample the spectrum to test for
where once there was only radio. Instead of the signals, we get a very different picture. Most of the
original two mobile phone competitors in each spectrum is empty in most places most of the time.
market, for example, we now have six national There may be a rectangle filled in on a frequency
carriers in the U.S. The “usable” spectrum of chart, but there is no detectable signal actually
frequencies is five thousand times wider than it using that frequency8 (see Figure 2).
was in 1927, when the Radio Act was passed. Many advances in wireless technology make use
Have we now exhausted the capacity of the spec- of excess capacity that shows up in the real world
trum? Yes and no. If we only focus on frequencies, but not on the official chart. Because the frequency
virtually every useful band has been allocated to chart represents official boundaries, however, these

Radio: controlled Cordless
AM toys Wireless phones*
FM radio Medical medical
implants Pagers


Broadcast Broadcast Broadcast Broadcast Mobile

TV TV TV TV phones Highway
CB Car alarms
radio Family toll tags*
Radio *overlapping
Cordless Service use
phones Garage door (walkie
openers Mobile
talkies) phones

megahertz (MHz) 200 300 400
500 600 700 800 900 1 GHz
(see note* at bottom of page) MHz (1,000 MHz)

FIGURE 2 – TWO VIEWS OF CAPACITY: The top image, from The Citizen’s Guide to the Airwaves, depicts allocations
on the low-frequency, broadcast bands. The bottom image represents the actual usage of the most active channels
of the broadcast bands, as recorded in New America Foundation’s spectrum usage measurements taken during peak
hours in the highly populated, Dupont Circle area of Washington, DC.

Radio Revolution

technologies can only be used in certain frequency

bands. Between the view of spectrum as filled up
and the reality of its emptiness lies an almost
incalculable opportunity.

Even the gaggle of capacity-enhancing techniques
listed earlier is incomplete. Capacity depends not
just on the way a device distinguishes one signal
from another, but on the design or “architecture” of
the overall communications system it is part of.
Two systems with the same “amount” of spectrum
may have very different capacity profiles. What FIGURE 3 – COMPARING BROADCAST VS. CELLULAR
matters is the use that can be made of the spectrum, ARCHITECTURE: The broadcast architecture (left) services
not just the abstract width of the frequency band. more users over a larger area with one signal, while the
What does architecture mean in this context? A cellular architecture (right) lets more users receive and
simple example would be to compare a radio broad- send distinct transmissions.
cast with a mobile telephone call.9 Radio is a broad-
cast service, meaning that a tower sends out a signal signals to any handset within a few square miles. For
at the maximum allowed power in all directions. It handsets out of that range, there are other towers.
blankets an area, so that every receiver within range Because of the low power, users talking to one tower
(typically a metropolitan area) can tune in the signal. don’t notice the signals that other users are exchang-
Mobile phone networks, by contrast, use a cellular ing at the same time with a different tower. The
architecture. Each tower sends relatively low-power same spectrum is being “reused” (see Figure 3).

Shannon’s Law receiver. Add more of either, and the solution is no

longer so easy. More devices may cause “interference,”
Bell Labs researcher Claude Shannon, in his seminal or may create opportunities to interweave signals or oth-
work in the late 1940s, created the mathematical erwise add intelligence to the network. Similarly, a wider
concept of information theory. Shannon developed band adds capacity, but it’s not the only way to do so.
equations to measure the ability of a communications The scientific field of multi-user information theory
channel to carry useful information. As usually takes Shannon’s work and extends it for these more
explained, “Shannon’s Law” defines a maximum complex (and more realistic) situations. It is a fruitful
capacity, which is proportional to the frequency or area of research and experiment. In the half-century
bandwidth of the channel. As a result, bandwidth has since Shannon’s initial work, we have learned many
become almost synonymous with capacity. Because things about what is possible with wireless communi-
there is only so much bandwidth, and any service can cations. But there are many things we still do not
only have a small portion of it, this model implies know. For example, we don’t even know the maxi-
strict limits on possible capacity. mum potential capacity of a system with an arbitrary
This paraphrase of Shannon’s capacity theorem leaves number of devices. This core uncertainty should make
out critical facts. The version in question describes the us hesitate before uttering any statements about
simplest possible case – one transmitter and one what is or is not possible in the wireless realm.

Wireless Fundamentals

Notice the distinctions. The broadcast model phone service was first conceived in the 1940s, but
lets the transmitters and receivers be simple (and couldn’t have been deployed economically at that
therefore cheap), because there is only one trans- time even if there were no regulatory hurdles.
mitter sending data in one direction. The cellular Today, thanks to massive increases in computing
model requires many more towers and more power and miniaturization of digital devices, many
expensive devices, but in return it lets many more architectures are possible that once were not even
conversations occur simultaneously, in both direc- imaginable. Asking about capacity or interference
tions. The broadcast system services more users without considering architecture and the tradeoffs
with one signal, but the cellular system lets more it enforces is like asking how many people can live
users receive separate and distinct transmissions. in a city. It depends.
There are other significant differences, and other
network architectures with their own characteris- Layers
tics. Which architecture is chosen depends on The third fundamental concept for understanding
technological capabilities and the service being wireless systems has traditionally not been part of
offered. However, the way the legal regime divides the wireless world at all. Wireless networks have
and regulates spectrum defines the range of possi- historically used integrated, special-purpose
ble architectures to choose from. devices. A short-range data connection in a televi-
Like capacity multiplexing techniques, wireless sion remote control does one thing; a microwave
architectures have evolved over time. Cellular relay for sending long-distance telephone signals
across the country does something else. This self-
contained approach mirrors that of pre-digital
wired networks. Telephone systems had little in
common with cable TV systems, for example.

Content In contrast, data networks tend to operate using

a layered model.10 Rather than defining the entire
system as an integrated whole, engineers split it up
into a communications “stack.” This allows for
separation of functions that can be optimized indi-

Applications vidually. For example, technology developed for

telephone networks to encode voice signals can be
(Voice, video distribution, Web, etc.) applied to different “physical” layers, including
cable TV networks and wireless environments. In
today’s digital world, every signal is just a stream of
theoretically interchangeable digital bits. Cable and
Logical phone companies can compete to offer voice,
(Addressing, meshed routing, handoffs, etc.) video, and broadband services, even though their
networks use different types of wires.
Layering has several benefits. It makes systems
more flexible, allows innovation in one area to
Physical benefit systems elsewhere, opens up new possibili-
ties for competition, and gives users “best of breed”
(WiFi, OFDM, UWB, etc.)
solutions rather than bundles which may not meet
their needs.
FIGURE 4 – LAYERS: In the digital era, wireless signals con- Network engineers often use a seven-layer
sist of a stream of interchangeable digital bits. Engineers use model published by the International Standards
a layered framework to provide order and optimize and man- Organization.11 A simplified version for policy
age transmissions. purposes includes four layers, from bottom to top:

Radio Revolution

FIGURE 5 – NTIA SPECTRUM ALLOCATION CHART: The National Telecommunications and Information
Administration (NTIA) uses a complex chart with more than 500 colored patches to illustrate spectrum-
use allocations.

physical, logical, applications, and content. The tion, in the U.S. and elsewhere. In wireless, that reg-
wireless technologies described in this paper ulation takes the form of spectrum policy. The
operate at the bottom two layers. The physical layer Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tells
involves how information is actually sent across some entities that they can use particular frequen-
the communications channel. The logical layer cies, usually for specific purposes and with detailed
concerns addressing and management functions technical and economic requirements. It tells every-
that ensure the right information gets to the right one else that they cannot communicate on those
place efficiently (see Figure 4). frequencies. And it enforces those rules, punishing
violators. The National Telecommunications and
The Role of Government Information Administration (NTIA) manages the
What is “possible” in communications always federal government’s use of spectrum, and serves as
has two meanings: technical and legal. Technical the principal advisor to the President for spectrum
possibility is a function of scientific discovery and policy formulation.
commercialization. Legal possibility is defined by Extensive government regulation of spectrum
the regulatory system. Many things are possible is taken for granted. But let us ask for a moment,
in the technical realm but not in the legal. why should that be so?12 Communication over the
(Occasionally, the reverse is true!) No discussion airwaves is speech, just like communication through
of the business and social fundamentals of wireless the wired phone network or through a microphone
technology would be complete without taking at a political rally. Government regulation of speech
government rules into account. is strictly limited under the Constitution. Yet we
From its earliest days, the communications indus- tolerate a government agency, the FCC, bestowing
try has been subject to pervasive government regula- the ability to speak upon individual companies,

Wireless Fundamentals

telling them exactly how they can speak, and pun- For sixty years, spectrum policy meant deciding
ishing others who attempt to speak (see the NTIA which uses – and which users – were entitled to
Spectrum Allocation Chart, Figure 5). frequencies.14 Federal spectrum allocation operates
There are several rationales for government as a kind of industrial policy, choosing some
regulation of spectrum. The airwaves are services for favored treatment and often protecting
considered a public asset, not to be left to the providers from competition. The biggest change in
vagaries of the private market. Regulation pro- recent years has been the shift to auctions and flex-
motes a diversity of access by different voices, ible licenses as the preferred initial assignment
and maximizes efficiency in use of the airwaves. mechanism. Responding to the critique first
Government involvement prevents the chaos of articulated by Nobel Prize-winning economist
ruinous interference that might occur in a vacuum. Ronald Coase in 1959,15 the FCC and many other
And there are important public safety and national governments now use auctions as the primary
security uses of wireless communication that assignment tool, rather than comparative hearings
government promotes and manages. (“beauty contests”) or lotteries.
Behind all these rationales stands a single An important element of the FCC’s licensing
assumption: scarcity. If spectrum were not scarce, regime is what the licensees receive. In virtually all
and simultaneous uses of the same spectrum were cases, licensees do not receive the right to control
not mutually exclusive, there would be no reason the spectrum absolutely. The Communications
to treat it differently from other forms of speech. Act does not view spectrum as a tangible
Whether spectrum is in fact as scarce as we assume commodity. Licensees receive a right to use
is a major theme of this paper. the frequency to provide a particular service,
Spectrum regulation developed early in the 20th and only that service.16
century in response to two developments: a bur- A small amount of spectrum is assigned not to
geoning commercial radio broadcast industry, and any specific users, but for “unlicensed” operation.
fears of chaos if government did not step in. The The government sets technical requirements, such
failure of nearby ships to heed the distress signal as power limits, for users of the band, and provides
of the Titanic was seen as evidence for more certification mechanisms for devices that operate
extensive government intervention. Back at home, within it. Users of unlicensed devices have no
nascent radio broadcasters were squabbling about formal protection against interference from
interference, arguing over who had the right to other users in the band, but they need no special
transmit on particular channels. Secretary of permission to operate there. The FCC also allows
Commerce Herbert Hoover pushed for federal very low power devices (less than one watt) to
oversight of spectrum allocation. He was rebuffed operate in significant sections of the spectrum
by the courts, who found he lacked statutory under its Part 15 rules, on the grounds that they
authority. So the Radio Act of 1927 and the are too quiet to interfere with any other service.
Communications Act of 1934 were passed,
establishing the Federal Communications
Commission as the prime arbiter of the airwaves.13

Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic

Wireless systems today are not just The Traditional Approach

better and faster than those of the past. Traditional wireless systems are static.
They can be fundamentally different. They assume dumb receivers and dumb
One could explain a car as simply a transmitters, whose function is to blast
speedier and more durable horse, or a out a signal at the maximum allowable
computer as nothing but a very fast power level. The model is quite
calculator. Those descriptions sound straightforward: Imagine throwing a
laughable. We know that new technolo- large rock into the middle of a round
gies have countless benefits and impacts pond. Ripples will radiate out from the
that their predecessors don’t. Horses are point of impact, eventually reaching the
horses, and cars are cars, even though in shore. No skill is required for a person
some circumstances one can substitute standing on the shore, or sitting in a
for the other. boat on the water, to come into contact
So too with wireless communications. with the ripples.
Systems built using modern techniques The good aspect of this model is that
such as spread spectrum, software- it doesn’t require much sophistication in
defined radio, and mesh networking can the endpoints. Transmitters and
serve the same purposes as systems built receivers that don’t think much for
using older approaches. At this rela- themselves are relatively cheap to build.
tively early stage in the radio revolu- When the costs of radio hardware and
tion, the two types of systems look very computing power are high, such savings
similar. If the newer dynamic systems make a difference in what’s economically
can develop and be deployed, however, possible. The downside of the static
they will eventually seem as different approach is that the devices aren’t smart
from their predecessors as a car does enough to get out of each other’s way if
from a horse. there are multiple signals in the same

Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic

space and frequency band. Throw two rocks into When the Devices Get Smart
the pond, and it will be impossible to determine Intelligent transmitters and/or receivers can engage
which originated the resulting ripples. in a different form of wireless communication than
For wireless communication, the solution to this the traditional static systems. Rather than merely
“interference” problem was to create exclusivity waiting for an incoming signal, the receivers can
within frequency bands. In the early days, such as contribute to the communications process. Rather
when radio and TV broadcasting were established, than radiating constantly toward static targets, the
affordable receivers weren’t even smart enough to transmitters can craft what they send for maximum
tell what was in their band. The FCC established efficiency. Call this dynamic wireless communication.
wide “guard bands” around licensed frequencies Changes in the nature of wireless devices also
where no one could transmit. That’s why the three affect the way devices interact with each other, and
original U.S. broadcast TV networks are typically with their surroundings. In other words, they
on either channels 2, 4, and 7 or channels 3, 6, change the interference environment. As discussed
and 10.17 The “white space” in between is dark to earlier, interference is a consequence of system
ensure receivers in each channel don’t become design, rather than an inherent property of the radio
confused.18 spectrum. Interference is also inherently a legal con-
Static wireless systems are static because of the struct. No radio signal on planet Earth is perfectly
cost and computational capability of hardware, pure. There is always some external radiation that
more so even than scarcity of spectrum. As is well impinges on transmissions. Regulations or other
known, computers have become more capable over legal mechanisms distinguish between permissible
time. In a famous formulation, Intel co-founder incidental noise and impermissible interference.19
Gordon Moore noticed that transistor density on The static mechanism to overcome ambient
microprocessors doubled every 18 months thanks “interference” is to raise power output. The louder
to advances in manufacturing technology. His the signal, the easier it is to find among other
observation became a prediction, and then a law, noise. Of course, raising power increases the likeli-
which has held true for 35 years. hood of impinging on other signals, especially
The implication of Moore’s Law is that whatever those adjacent either geographically or frequency-
a computer can do today, it can do twice as well in wise. Regulators must therefore define power out-
18 months, or twice as cheaply. If you bought a PC put and license geography limits carefully.
for $1000 three years ago, today you’d be able to Historically, large amounts of spectrum were kept
buy a machine four times as fast for that same as guard bands where no one could transmit, to
$1000. On the other hand, if you bought a color allow a wide “buffer” between licensed signals.
TV three years ago for $300, you might be able to Static wireless systems have traditionally dealt
get a slightly bigger screen or sharper picture with interference from other transmissions through
today, but you’d see the same programming. legal means. No one else may transmit in licensed
A radio itself is not a computer. It is a device for bands. The FCC’s rules provide penalties for
transmitting and/or receiving signals. However, “harmful interference,” which is defined in terms
computers can be used to control radios, or to of the effects of the second signal on the licensed
process those signals. Just as devices from automo- service.20 When the FCC proposed to authorize a
biles to air conditioning systems benefit from large number of lower-power FM radio stations for
having computer “brains,” computers can improve use by community groups, licensed radio and TV
wireless communications devices. With today’s broadcasters expressed alarm that their transmis-
computing power, in fact, they can totally trans- sions would be threatened. These opponents con-
form them. vinced the FCC to significantly scale back the
freedom it granted to low-power FM broadcasters.
Dynamic wireless systems look at interference dif-
ferently. It’s the equivalent of listening closely rather

Radio Revolution

than asking the person you’re conversing

with to talk more loudly. Because of their
flexibility, dynamic systems often have the
ability to “maneuver” around potential
interference, whether by splitting up
signals into packets spread across a wide
range of frequencies, hopping from place
to place in the spectrum, or sending com-
munications through a physically distinct
route across a mesh network.
Think about a group at a cocktail party.
Many people can hold conversations with
one another simultaneously. They can do
so not because they each shout over the
others, or because they agree on a set of
rules to define who can talk when and FIGURE 6 – COCKTAIL PARTY: A good metaphor for the receiver capabilities
how. It’s obvious to us that the reason so of smart devices is how people communicate at a cocktail party. Multiple
many people can talk at once is that the conversations can occur simultaneously despite ambient noise.
speakers modulate their volume and the
listeners use their brains to distinguish their
partner from the ambient noise (see Figure 6). If National Telecommunications and Information
you’ve ever tried listening to a piece of music and Administration (NTIA) at the U.S. Department of
concentrating on different instruments to pull them Commerce has proposed an “electrospace” model
out of the mix, you’ll understand this process imme- to describe the ways that today’s wireless systems
diately. Now transfer the setting from smart human can coexist. He proposes the following variables:
listeners to smart digital radios. physical location (latitude, longitude, and height);
Another analogy is the Internet. The Internet frequency; time; and direction of arrival (azimuth
doesn’t have master directories or switches control- and elevation).21 These seven degrees of freedom
ling the flow of information. Every router can for sharing spectrum compare with the single
decide independently where to send traffic. This dimension – frequency – under the static approach.
works effectively thanks to cheap capacity and And the electrospace framework is still too limited.
cheap computers that power the routers and other It does not include techniques such as low-power
devices such as caches and Web servers at the underlay, cooperative mesh networking, and soft-
edges of the network. ware-defined radio, which are discussed later.
As these analogies show, the switch from static to Second, the architecture of wireless systems
dynamic approaches has two major consequences. can change. Instead of cheap, dumb terminals at
First, the capacity of the system to transmit the endpoints, there are agile, intelligent devices.
useful information increases. The same spectrum Networks as a whole become more decentralized
can hold more communications. The intelligence of and more flexible. Two-way communication
devices is substituting for brute-force capacity replaces one-way blanket broadcasting as the
between them. Imagine what highways would be dominant mode of connectivity. What were once
like if cars couldn’t be steered quickly to avoid colli- single-purpose, hardwired systems dominated by
sions and slowdowns. There would have to be huge proprietary radio components increasingly become
buffers between each vehicle to prevent accidents… general-purpose, adaptive platforms dominated by
precisely what exists in the spectrum today. commodity computing components. These subtle
Dynamic wireless techniques effectively multiply changes have dramatic consequences. Just as
the usable spectrum. Robert Matheson of the commodity PCs vanquished powerful mainframes

Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic

by bringing computing to the masses, dynamic cies, or by splitting up spectrum into tiny slices of
wireless systems will replace central transmission time. These multiplexing techniques are entirely
towers with millions of interactive end-user devices. consistent with the industry structure that devel-
oped under the dominance of the static wireless
Survey of Dynamic Wireless Techniques approach. Frequency-division multiplexing
Dynamic wireless communication is a deliberately requires the most limited possible intelligence in
broad classification that includes many technical devices, with spectrum bands exclusively allocated
mechanisms, with new ones being developed all to specific users. Time-division multiplexing is
the time. Once the transmitters and receivers are more complex, but traditionally requires all the
seen as computers that can contribute to the effi- devices in a system to synchronize their “clocks” in
cacy of the communications system, all sorts of order to know which signal is in which time slice.
possibilities emerge. These possibilities do not Such synchronization effectively requires exclusive
require any particular spectrum, or any particular control of a frequency.
spectrum policy regime. However, as will be dis- There are newer multiplexing techniques with
cussed later, spectrum policy significantly influ- different results. The first developed was “spread
ences the kinds of techniques that are used, by spectrum.” Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr and
establishing the economic conditions and incen- musician George Antheil filed for a patent on a
tives for spectrum users. spread spectrum communications system in 1942,
though real-world deployment occurred later. A
Spread Spectrum spread spectrum system inverts the static model of
As discussed earlier, wireless systems designers transmitting with high power on a narrow channel.
have long understood how to “multiplex” multiple Using low power and spreading the signal across a
signals by sending them along different frequen- range of frequencies, it’s possible to carry more

An Intelligent Device Bill of Rights of the spectrum. A draft of the Bill of Rights pro-
posed in September of 2002 includes three articles:
A key question in a world of dynamic wireless sys- ❚ Any intelligent wireless device may, on a non-
tems is how to set the proper boundaries on how interference basis, use any frequency, frequencies,
devices can operate. More sophisticated equipment or bandwidth, at any time, to perform its function.
can reliably transmit signals in situations that would ❚ All users of the spectrum shall have the right to
otherwise be subject to interference. “Cognitive” operate without harmful electromagnetic interfer-
devices can sense the local spectral environment, ence from other users.
adjust their transmissions to take advantage of tem- ❚ All licensing, auctioning, selling, or otherwise dis-
porarily empty spaces, and move their signals else- position of the rights to frequencies and spectrum
where as soon as another transmission is detected. usage shall be subordinate to, and controlled by,
Such devices are incompatible with traditional fre- Articles 1 and 2, above.
quency-based licensing, which assumes a frequency is
exclusively dedicated to a licensee. The Bill of Rights is at the early stages of discussion
One idea under consideration by the FCC’s within the TAC, which itself has no formal authority.
Technological Advisory Committee (TAC) is an It suggests, though, how significantly the wireless
“Intelligent Wireless Device Bill of Rights.”22 It would paradigm shift now underway could change the
establish a set of principles to allow effective sharing basic framework of spectrum policy.

Radio Revolution

Because of fears about interference,

ABC ABC commercial use of ultra-wideband for
communication was illegal until early
2002, when the FCC authorized it
A A A A for the first time.23

Space-Time Coding
Many other multiplexing schemes
are possible beyond spread spectrum
C C C C and UWB. For example, companies
such as Northpoint Technology have
developed systems that multiplex
satellite and terrestrial transmissions
in the same frequency band.24
FIGURE 7 – SPREAD SPECTRUM: In spread-spectrum communications, low-power Satellite signals arrive from above,
radio transmitters divide their signals into coded packets across a range of frequen- while terrestrial signals are sent hori-
cies and receivers reconstruct the message. zontally. A smart enough system can
distinguish these two signals based
on their angle of arrival, and can
transmissions simultaneously. The basic notion is even do so without requiring modifications to the
that if the transmission is broken into pieces, each existing satellite system.
of which is tagged with a code, a receiver that Northpoint’s technology is an example of a
knows the code can reconstruct the message. The broader class of techniques that take into account
wider the spreading, the more space there is in the physical location of transmitters and receivers.
between the coded packets to send other signals at Static broadcasting uses a saturation approach.
the same time (see Figure 7). The receivers can be anywhere within the propa-
Taking spread spectrum to its logical conclusion, gation footprint of the signal. The transmitter
if the signal is spread wide enough, the power has no idea where they are beyond that, and the
density can be so low that the signal becomes receivers know nothing other than that the
effectively invisible to other systems in the same transmitter is in the same footprint. As the
bands. Radio frequencies are never totally empty Northpoint system shows, however, the location
of noise. Radiation-emitting devices such as hair of transmitters and receivers is a useful piece of
dryers and microwave ovens, as well as cosmic information. A signal arriving from thousands of
background radiation, create a “noise floor” that miles overhead is different from a signal arriving
all systems must contend with. Static systems do laterally from a few yards away, even if both are
so by using high-enough power that it’s easy to within the same frequency band.
distinguish the high-power signal from the low- Space-time coding techniques use the physical
level noise. topology of the network, or the surrounding envi-
With enough smarts, though, a dynamic system ronment, to add efficiency to wireless communica-
can transmit and receive very faint signals without tions systems. For example, the BLAST system
ever raising above the noise-floor threshold. Only developed at AT&T Bell Labs employs antenna
when very large numbers of such devices operate in diversity and “multiple input/multiple output”
the same location is interference even a realistic (MIMO) technology to increase capacity. Instead
possibility. This approach is known as ultra-wide- of a single antenna at the receiver, BLAST employs
band (UWB). Many UWB systems employ very arrays of multiple antennas at both the transmitter
short “carrierless” pulses of electricity that give and receiver. Comparing the signal received at the
them other unique and beneficial properties. different antennas makes it easier to distinguish

Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic

transmissions from noise, increasing

effective capacity. Start-ups such as Airgo
Wireless are now using MIMO techniques
to enhance capacity and range of wireless
LAN chipsets.
Even factors that seemingly reduce
capacity can be employed to increase it.
The bane of many wireless systems is
“multipath.” When radio waves encounter
obstacles such as walls, some fraction
bounce off the obstacle and the remainder
pass through. The ones that bounce may
still reach the receiver. But they do so
through a more circuitous, and therefore
slightly slower, path. The receiver sees FIGURE 8 – MESH NETWORKING: In a mesh network, every device added to
the same signal twice (or more), a split the system augments the network. In the case of a "last-mile," neighborhood
second apart. This multipath effect can network, end-users connect to the Internet by sharing connections with their
confuse the receiver, degrading the signal neighbors allowing for shorter distance, lower power transmissions.
With a properly defined system, how-
ever, multipath becomes just another information- telephone networks, where users connect through
adding physical element. Knowing how a signal local towers (see Figure 3). Many unlicensed
is bouncing around tells the receiver something technologies, including Bluetooth and WiFi, offer
about the location and nature of the transmitter. If some mesh networking capabilities. Vendors such
the two temporally spaced signals are identified as as LocustWorld sell WiFi access points with
the same transmission, they can be combined in sophisticated meshing software to
a buffer to enhance the output signal. Similar discover and connect to other nodes automatically.
techniques can be used for other factors that The benefit of a mesh approach is that there are
traditionally cause “interference,” such as mobility. likely to be other end-users of the network closer
to you than a tower or central broadcast facility.
Mesh Networking Shorter distances mean better signals, lower power
Mesh networking is somewhat different than the requirements, and the ability to avoid obstacles
previous techniques. It is a family of cooperative such as trees.
network architectures that can be applied through Consider the task of providing “last mile” high-
software to any radio technology. The basic defini- speed Internet connectivity to a neighborhood (see
tion of a mesh is that receivers talk to each other as Figure 8). The benefit of mesh networking is that
well as to the transmitter.25 A good example of a every new house brought online adds something to
mesh network is the Internet. Every router has a the network, improving performance and reliabil-
table that allows it to send packets to many other ity. The difficulty is that a mesh network doesn’t
routers, rather than through a central clearing- work with one or two nodes. The system requires a
house. Thanks to this architecture, the Internet critical mass of devices to operate effectively. That
avoids congestion choke points and single points number depends on the service and deployment
of failure. When one link is down or overloaded, environment. Several companies have tried to sell
traffic automatically shifts to other links. last-mile mesh networking gear, including
Wireless systems have traditionally used either a SkyPilot, Omnilux, and RoamAD. None has yet
pure broadcast architecture (one central transmit- achieved a large-scale commercial deployment,
ter), or a hub-and-spoke approach as with cellular though field trials are ongoing.

Radio Revolution

Other providers are selling mesh networking The flexibility of SDR reduces costs by eliminat-
gear for public safety applications. One vendor, ing duplicate equipment, both for users and for
Tropos Networks, recently built a 17-cell mesh service providers. Imagine a cellular network, for
network for the police force of San Mateo, example, where each service provider only had to
California so that officers could access crime data- put up towers where others had not, rather than
bases from laptops in squad cars.26 MeshNetworks each of them having to build a redundant national
is in trials with the Orange County Fire and footprint.
Rescue service in Florida, offering vehicle and The potential of SDR goes significantly beyond
personnel tracking as well as mobile Internet cost reduction. Because a software radio is soft-
connectivity through a distributed mesh network. ware, it can run on general-purpose computers
such as Windows and Linux devices, using mass-
Software-Defined Radio produced digital signal processors (DSPs) and
At the heart of any wireless communications system other hardware. Such devices benefit from Moore’s
is the radio. A radio transmits or receives wireless Law and the competitive dynamics that steadily
signals encoded into waves that oscillate at frequen- push costs down and capabilities up. As DSP chips
cies somewhere within the radio spectrum. become more powerful for the same price, an SDR
Traditionally, those radios have been fixed in hard- system can decode a larger swath of spectrum or
ware. A radio talks to a fixed swath of spectrum, and perform other new functions. SDR systems can
understands a fixed modulation scheme for coding also take the decoded radio signals and feed them
signals. It’s like a dedicated telephone line between into other applications.
two businesses. You simply couldn’t use it to call your Agile or cognitive radios are a sub-category of
grandmother, or another business across the street. SDR currently in the development stage. Agile
Software-defined radio (SDR) uses software to radios can “jump” from one frequency to another
control how the radio works.27 It’s like replacing in a matter of milliseconds. Combined with pro-
the dedicated phone line with a connection that cessing capabilities that allow such devices to
goes through an electronic switch. Suddenly many sample the spectrum around them, agile radios
of the characteristics that were immutable become can in effect manufacture new spectrum. Even a
flexible. Capabilities not envisioned when the channel supposedly occupied by a licensed system
device was built can be added later. is empty much of the time in much of the defined
SDR has several benefits. One device can sup- physical area. An agile radio could hop among
port multiple services transmitting on different local, short-duration empty spaces in the spec-
frequencies with different encoding schemes. A trum, moving whenever it sensed another trans-
mobile phone handset, for example, could receive mission in the same band. Such devices could
signals from more than one service provider, or effectively become their own virtual networks,
from service providers in different countries, creating connections with other nodes wherever
regardless of what technical standard they employ. they are.
This is particularly important for markets, such as
public safety, where incompatibilities between Implications of Dynamic Approaches
systems, such as those used by police and fire The switch from static to dynamic wireless
departments responding to the same emergency, communication has huge consequences. Technical
are critical problems. The U.S. military has funded approaches created to solve technical problems
significant research and development related to turn out to have major policy, business, and even
SDR for similar reasons. The Joint Tactical Radio social consequences. These consequences, such as
System (JTRS) is now under development through the possibility of replacing spectrum licensing
prime contractor Boeing and subcontractors with “commons,” have generated a great deal of
including Vanu, a start-up in Cambridge, MA that attention. They would not be possible without the
is a leading SDR technology developer. technical advances we have described so far. In

Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic

many cases, the technical advances have grown up

within the dominant wireless paradigm, as with
Qualcomm’s CDMA spread spectrum technology
for licensed cellular networks. As wireless tech-
nology moves forward, however, the possibilities
for radical change will become more difficult
to ignore.
Author George Gilder identified the disruptive
potential of dynamic wireless technologies ten
years ago, in a prescient article in Forbes ASAP.28
At a time when policy-makers were infatuated
with spectrum auctions, Gilder pointed out that
auctions were counterproductive if intelligent
devices could share spectrum and avoid interfer-
ence on their own. The technological paradigm
shift of dynamic wireless calls for paradigm shifts
in regulation and business as well.


The first and biggest consequence of the radio MODELS: Technology is transforming the capacity of the
revolution is that licensing of spectrum frequen- spectrum from scarcity to abundance, akin to the vastness of
cies is no longer required. Recall that the original the oceans. But current airwave regulation is similar to giving
basis for spectrum licensing by the government companies exclusive shipping lanes, and requiring non-
was the fear of ruinous and pervasive interference. licensed users to pay a toll to access them.
If devices can operate with sufficiently low power
and high intelligence to avoid one another, exclu-
sive rights are no longer necessary to prevent engineer Paul Baran, and communications scholar
interference. With a properly defined environ- Eli Noam, and continuing in the late 1990s and
ment, users effectively can’t prevent each other beyond with the work of Yochai Benkler, David
from communicating. That opens the door for a Reed, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Shepard, and myself,
new regime that allows anyone to transmit within the argument for spectrum commons has gradually
general technical guidelines. taken shape.29 As will be discussed later, there are
This notion has become known as a “spectrum several varieties of spectrum commons, including
commons.” The analogy here is to common lands unlicensed bands and underlays. Evolving dynamic
in the Middle Ages in England, where anyone spectrum management techniques are rapidly cre-
could graze their sheep. Not all such environments ating new possibilities for sharing rather than
are subject to the infamous “tragedy of the licensing spectrum.
commons.” If there is enough open space, and If there is enough capacity to support a com-
good enough legal or customary rules governing mons, exclusive rights are unnecessary. By analogy,
individual action, a commons can thrive without the ocean is not infinite in size, but it is large
rapid exhaustion. Until recently, these concepts enough that ships can be trusted to navigate
were rarely applied to spectrum, because capacity around one another (see Figure 9). The ships, like
constraints were thought to be so severe. As noted dynamic wireless devices, can intelligently alter
earlier, though, the revolution in wireless technol- their routes to avoid collisions. There is no need to
ogy lifts the constraints that made spectrum scarce. give companies exclusive shipping lanes, and pro-
Beginning with the early 1990s challenge to hibit other ships from using those routes unless
FCC spectrum auctions from Gilder, network they pay a toll. Such exclusivity would significantly

Radio Revolution

reduce the level of shipping traffic, with no corre- element of the “service” offered to end-users
sponding benefits. Technology is making the wire- becomes the devices those users purchase. Because
less world look more and more like the ocean. those devices run on standards defined by industry
Well-functioning commons produce several bodies rather than mandated by spectrum licensees,
normative benefits. Because access is no longer there can be open, competitive markets to build
controlled by a designated gatekeeper, everyone better and more cost-effective equipment.30 We
can participate. Virtually anyone could distribute move, therefore, from a market for centralized
TV programs, promote an idea, or engage in a infrastructure and proprietary services, to a market
group conversation using the same mechanism for consumer devices, software, and ancillary serv-
that today supports a limited set of broadcasters ices. Users pay a significant fraction of the total
and operators. This is freedom of speech on a network build-out costs directly, by purchasing
spectacular scale. hardware, greatly reducing the expenses service
providers must undertake. For many services, there
Market Structure are still core network costs—for access points,
The second implication of dynamic wireless sys- backhaul to wired Internet
tems is that the business structure of markets backbones, authentication, “Change the technology,
changes. Static systems necessitate exclusivity. The roaming, and security—
downside of exclusivity is that no one else can con- but these are limited and the economics and
tribute to a network. The licensee must bear the compared to the all-
total cost of building network infrastructure. The encompassing network the law of spectrum use
licensee typically recovers that cost by charging build-out that licensed
fees to users for both devices and communications operators must undertake. must change, too.”
services. Any vendor of user or network equipment Furthermore, dynamic
must sell to or through the licensed operators. wireless devices allow for – ELI NOAM, PROFESSOR OF ECONOMICS
They are the only customers who can take markets with greater AND FINANCE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
technologies and legally put them into the market. diversity at several points.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this Many equipment vendors, several providers, and
“infrastructure” market model. It is traditionally application or content providers can compete,
the market structure used for services that have because there is no mandatory control point and
high capital costs and benefit from economies of each provider can leverage the infrastructure built
scale. Having every person responsible for building by others.
the roads passing their home wouldn’t make much
sense, nor would having every person responsible Incentives for Robustness
for bringing their own connection to a central tele- Intelligent or dynamic spectrum management tech-
phone exchange. There are, however, serious niques may be used in any regulatory environment.
downsides. Deployment is slow because it is costly However, the nature of spectrum regulation heav-
and requires proven models for recouping that ily influences incentives for deployment of intelli-
cost. Innovation is constrained because only a few gent devices. The traditional, and still dominant,
licensees control access to the market. Uniformity environment is exclusive licenses for frequency
and interoperability are enforced by the licensee, bands. Spectrum licensees have incentives to
but services and equipment are costly because they squeeze as much capacity as possible out of their
are provided in limited volumes and based on spectrum. On the other hand, they have incentives
proprietary standards. to make the devices users must purchase as
As wireless devices become more intelligent and inexpensive as possible. In a static system, the
commons arrangements become viable, new mar- money is all in the service; the devices are dumb.
ket structures become possible. If the spectrum is There is no need to make them robust against
no longer part of the service equation, the primary interference, because interference from other

Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic

systems is prohibited and policed by the FCC. WiFi as a Case Study

Similarly, there is no great incentive to make the WiFi Defined
devices flexible, because the service provider is WiFi is the most prominent unlicensed wireless
focused only on supporting its own service. Indeed, technology available today. It is a family of spread
to keep the cost of switching to another service spectrum wireless local area networking standards
provider high, licensed providers have an incentive designed to allow users to send and receive data at
to discourage software-defined radios, which could 11-to-54 Mbps within a few hundred feet of
switch frequencies (and hence service providers) at another WiFi device or access point. WiFi is a
the click of a mouse. great case study for the impact of dynamic wireless
All that changes in a commons environment. technologies.
Because wireless devices in a commons have no Wireless data networking services have been
legally guaranteed protec- commercially available since the 1980s, beginning
“We need to think of tion against interference, with Ardis, a joint venture of IBM and Motorola,
they must guard against it and RAM Mobile Data. Ardis was purchased by
ways to bring [WiFi] using technical means. American Mobile Satellite and renamed Motient;
Fortunately, that is what after reorganizing through bankruptcy in early
applications to the dynamic wireless devices 2002 it is still trying to right itself financially.
are good at. RAM Mobile data was renamed Mobitex and is
developing world so as to Static systems create now part of Cingular Wireless. It is the primary
incentives to make the network used by wireless email devices such as the
make use of unlicensed receivers as dumb as pos- RIM Blackberry and the Palm VII. Motient and
sible. Dumber means Mobitex are wide-area systems that target enter-
radio spectrum to cheaper, after all. Because prise and messaging markets. Another wide-area
the central transmitter wireless network, the Metricom Ricochet system,
deliver cheap and fast does the heavy lifting, offered services directly to end-users, providing
there are no significant wireless Internet access in several U.S. cities for
Internet access.” benefits from intelligence laptop users. Metricom filed for bankruptcy in
at the edge devices. When 2001; its assets were purchased by Aerie Networks,
— UN SECRETARY GENERAL end-user devices become which is attempting to re-launch the service.
KOFI ANNAN dynamic, however, they These early wireless data networks generally
contribute to the integrity used licensed spectrum, though Ricochet employed
and performance of the overall system. Making 900 MHz unlicensed frequencies in some areas.
them smarter and more robust improves perform- They offered low-speed connections (19.2 kbps or
ance. And without license restrictions keeping less) with wide-area coverage in cities or nation-
other devices from transmitting on the same wide. Today, third-generation cellular networks are
frequencies, robustness based on intelligence is beginning to offer packet data networking services
the only path open. as well, typically at higher speeds. None of these
offerings has yet become a mass-market success.
WiFi has been exactly the opposite story. The
Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers
(IEEE) ratified the 802.11b standard for wireless
local area networking (WLAN) in 1999. Vendors
such as RadioLAN and Proxim had been offering
proprietary WLAN systems, for both office envi-
ronments and home networking. 802.11b, related
to the 802.3 Ethernet standard, was envisioned pri-
marily as a wireless replacement for wired Ethernet

Radio Revolution

connections in corporate environments. In 1999, and as little as one-tenth as much as a third-gener-

though, Apple Computer introduced a consumer ation cellular network.33
802.11b device, the Airport, using chipsets from The WiFi market wouldn’t have taken off with-
Lucent. The market exploded. out standards – both the technical ones defined by
The WiFi market grew to $1 billion annually the IEEE and the interoperability testing and certi-
(primarily in hardware sales) by 2002. Most of fication done by the Wi-Fi Alliance (formerly
that period has been a time of contraction in the WECA), an industry trade group. There is a need
technology and telecom sector making the for such industry standards because there is an
achievement even more impressive. More than entire industry of vendors, rather than one service
half of U.S. companies now support WiFi net- provider and its chosen suppliers, operating in the
works, and another 22 percent plan to do so WiFi universe. Now that the standards are in
within a year.31 And WiFi sales are projected to place, the market can take advantage of contribu-
keep growing. Cahners Instat sees the market tions from many competing vendors.
reaching $4.6 billion by 2005, and other research WiFi is now experiencing the next phase of
firms have issued similar projections.32 By 2008, development that can occur with dynamic wireless
says Allied Business Intelligence, 64 million WiFi systems. It is evolving and
nodes will be shipped annually. diversifying. The IEEE “[T]he unlicensed bands
has already extended the
Secrets of WiFi’s Success original 802.11b with sev- employ a commons
What made WiFi such a success, especially com- eral variants which will be
pared to previous wireless data systems? After all, discussed later. Meanwhile, model and have enjoyed
WiFi provides only short-range connections; on its start-ups are offering new
own, one access point can’t provide ubiquitous cov- kinds of devices that add tremendous success as
erage in a neighborhood or city. functionality to the origi-
WiFi has thrived because it has benefited from nal short-range WiFi hotbeds of innovation.”
an ecosystem that could only exist with the type of access points. Vivato, for
technology it uses. Because WiFi is a low-power, example, has developed a — FCC CHAIRMAN MICHAEL POWELL
spread-spectrum technology, WiFi devices can smart, phased-area antenna
coexist without the requirement of spectrum technology that can extend the range and capacity
licensing to prevent interference. That means there of WiFi signals, while remaining completely back-
is no need for service providers, cell towers, con- ward compatible with existing equipment.
trolled hardware markets, or expensive spectrum Locustworld in the UK is shipping 802.11 mesh
licenses. Anyone can buy a WiFi device and estab- networking boxes that automatically create ad hoc
lish a network. mesh networks with each other. Vendors such as
Because WiFi is an open standard and an equip- Engim and BroadBeam are offering WiFi switches
ment-centered rather than service-centered market that increase capacity of WiFi infrastructure.
(again, both of which flow from the nature of the Sputnik is shipping low-cost yet powerful self-con-
technology), costs are subject to computer industry figuring access points. Companies such as Telesym
downward pressure. A WiFi access point that cost and Vocera are running voice communications over
hundreds of dollars when introduced is available WiFi, opening up whole new market opportunities.
for less than $100 today. Chipsets are down in the In a traditional static wireless system, changing
$10 range, allowing laptop, personal digital assis- the network technology means upgrading the
tant (PDA), and mobile phone vendors to incorpo- whole network. Not just end-user devices but all
rate them with little or no price increase for the the core transmission elements must be upgraded.
overall system. According to Intel CTO Patrick The costs and time frames involved parallel those
Gelsinger, a WiFi network costs half as much per of deploying the system the first time. The transi-
user per month to operate than a DSL connection, tion from analog to digital television (DTV) is a

Paradigm Shift: From Static to Dynamic

perfect example. DTV technology has been com- Japan had to effectively start the entire process
mercially available for more than a decade. In the over again.
U.S., the formal transition to DTV began in 1996, Compare that to the transition from orphaned
and still only a tiny handful of customers can WLAN standards. Two standards that competed
receive DTV broadcasts. In Japan, high-definition with 802.11, Europe’s Hiperlan for high-speed
TV (HDTV) service has been commercially avail- WLANs and the HomeRF standard for home net-
able since the 1980s, but Japan chose an analog working, have lost out in the marketplace. Though
standard. Improving digital technology is now some equipment has been orphaned, most vendors
considered the best way to deliver HDTV, and have quickly switched to offering 802.11 products.

The Unlicensed World

Unlicensed wireless is far more than wireless techniques, and the systems
WiFi. Dynamic techniques for efficient they make possible, ultimately erode the
sharing of the spectrum, combined with very rationale for thinking of “the spec-
the open field for unlicensed innovation, trum” as a physical asset that can and
are creating an explosion of new sys- should be divided into frequency
tems, techniques, and business models. bands.35
For present policy purposes, however,
The Spectrum of it can still be useful to list prominent
Spectrum-Use Regimes mechanisms for sharing spectrum. The
“Licensed” and “unlicensed” are gener- New America Foundation and other
ally presented as the two models for public interest organizations have urged
spectrum usage. There are actually the FCC to consider four basic spec-
several variations, not entirely mutually trum use regimes: exclusive licensed,
exclusive. Put another way, the fact that pure unlicensed, shared unlicensed, and
WiFi uses spectrum bands dedicated to opportunistic unlicensed.36
unlicensed usage doesn’t mean that is
the only mechanism for regulators to Exclusive Licensed
create more space for unlicensed devices Most spectrum is exclusively licensed
and systems. Matheson’s electrospace today. Licensees may be carriers, broad-
model, for example, provides seven casters, specialized mobile radio, corpo-
dimensions for sharing spectrum, with rations, the military, or public safety
frequency only one of the variables.34 agencies. The licensee may have
Looking at the possibility of a spec- obtained its license for free, or through
trum commons purely as a matter of a competitive mechanism such as an
what regime to mandate for specific fre- auction. Regardless, it has exclusive con-
quencies misses the point. Dynamic trol of the frequency band for a period

The Unlicensed World

of years subject to the limitations of its license. like any other spectrum block. Instead of a service
Other systems are prohibited from producing provider gaining the rights to control use of the
harmful interference with the licensee. The broad- spectrum, subject to limits set in the terms of the
cast television bands are good examples of exclu- license, manufacturers gain the rights to sell
sively licensed spectrum. devices that conform to FCC-designated standards.
Some spectrum is licensed, but not for a single The devices themselves must be licensed, generally
user. Examples include the bands for the amateur on a generic and often self-licensing basis known as
radio service, radio astronomy, and private “type acceptance.”
microwave systems. These bands resemble pure An important point here is that unlicensed does
unlicensed spectrum, in that one entity doesn’t have not mean unregulated. In the 2.4 GHz band, for
total control. However, there are still restrictions on example, the FCC mandates power limits and other
who can transmit, and what kinds of services they technical requirements. New kinds of equipment
can provide. A technology that could increase that use different techniques than those already
capacity or deliver a new kind of service can’t be licensed must receive direct FCC approval. For
used in these bands if it doesn’t meet those criteria. example, Vivato, a start-up that sells a novel “WiFi
switch” based on phased-array antennas, received
Dedicated Unlicensed FCC approval in late 2002 for its technology.
The opposite regime is to have no exclusive
licensees in the band. For example, the 2.4 GHz Shared Unlicensed
Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) band is Under certain circumstances, unlicensed devices
open solely for unlicensed use. No devices that can share frequencies with licensed devices. This
operate in that band—which range from the WiFi arrangement is sometimes referred to as an ease-
access points to microwave ovens and cordless ment, by analogy to real property law. It is also
phones—can claim protection against interference known as “underlay,” because unlicensed devices
from other approved devices in the band. operate below the noise threshold of the high-
“Unlicensed” is actually something of a mis- power licensed devices in the band (see Figure 10).
nomer. It implies that the government has not There are two major examples of shared
made the spectrum available to licensees, when in unlicensed use in current FCC rules. The first,
fact the spectrum has been allocated and assigned Part 15, actually dates back to 1938. This section
of the FCC’s rules allows devices below a strict
power limit to operate in significant portions of the
spectrum. The severe power limits allow for only
very short-range devices, which do not produce

significant interference with licensed systems.

A more recent example of shared unlicensed use
is ultra-wideband (UWB). The FCC first author-

ized this technology in February 2002. It uses

transmissions spread across huge frequency ranges
at extremely low power, below the detectable noise
floor for other licensed devices in the same band.
Using spread spectrum techniques, UWB systems
FREQUENCY are able to reconstruct messages and support high-
speed transmissions even under such restrictive
FIGURE 10 – UNDERLAY SHARING: In underlay sharing, conditions. By authorizing ultra-wideband for
low-power, unlicensed devices share frequencies and avoid much of the spectrum above 3 GHz, the FCC
interference by operating beneath the noise threshold of effectively created a huge new unlicensed ease-
high-power devices in the band. ment shared with licensed services.

Radio Revolution

Opportunistic Unlicensed
Opportunistic sharing means taking advantage of
unused spectrum in licensed bands. As noted previ-
ously, the official frequency chart paints a mislead-
ing picture of how spectrum is actually used. Some

frequencies are allocated but not assigned to any
user. For example, they may be set aside as “guard
bands” between licensed frequencies for older serv-
ices such as broadcast television. The guard bands
were necessary because the licensed equipment
wasn’t sophisticated enough to distinguish signals FREQUENCY
otherwise. However, today’s smart unlicensed
devices could transmit in the guard bands without FIGURE 11 – OPPORTUNISTIC SHARING: In opportunistic
impinging on the licensed services.37 sharing, unlicensed devices detect and access licensed
In other cases, spectrum may be assigned but spectrum that is not currently in use, and then move away
not used in a particular area or for a particular as soon as licensees begin transmitting.
period of time. For example, a cellular phone
transmission tower is only active when communi-
cating with a handset nearby. When no user is in Local Area Networks (802.11)
range, the spectrum is temporarily available. 802.11 refers to the Institute for Electrical and
Other frequencies, licensed nationally, may be Electronic Engineers (IEEE) working group for
used in New York City but not at all in Montana. wireless Ethernet networking. The IEEE defines
“Cognitive radios” could detect such holes in the technical standards, but does not certify compli-
spectrum, switch communications there, and then ance with those standards. In parallel, industry
move away as soon as the licensee began transmit- associations such as the Wi-Fi Alliance create
ting (see Figure 11). Furthermore, as the electro- brand names which vendors are permitted to use if
space model shows, there are many ways to slice they meet compatibility requirements. The term
the spectrum pie. An “angle of arrival” system, for WiFi, a play on HiFi stereo systems, is such a
example, can opportunistically use “terrestrial” brand name.38 Originally referring only to 802.11b,
spectrum in bands licensed for communication WiFi now encompasses 802.11 a, b, and g.
with orbiting satellites overhead. There are three widely deployed 802.11
There is no reason to believe that all the possi- technologies:
ble mechanisms for opportunistically sharing
spectrum have been discovered or implemented. ❚ 802.11b – The original WiFi, providing 11 Mbps
As wireless systems become more dynamic and connections using direct-sequenced spread spec-
more intelligent, they will be capable of coexisting trum modulation in the 2.4 GHz frequency
in new ways. band.
❚ 802.11a – A higher-speed standard delivering 54
Current Unlicensed Products Mbps connections, but using different spectrum
Though the WiFi name is getting a tremendous (5 GHz) and modulation (orthogonal frequency
amount of attention and, as a result, has been division multiplexing, OFDM) than 802.11b. As
expanded to include standards other than the orig- a result, 802.11a systems are not backward com-
inal 802.11b, it is important to keep in mind that patible with 802.11b, and require separate
WiFi is not a synonym for unlicensed wireless. radios.
WiFi is a local-area networking protocol. It deliv- ❚ 802.11g – A backward-compatible high-speed
ers data, such as Internet connectivity and email, standard, delivering 54 Mbps through OFDM
across links of no more than a few hundred feet. like 802.11a, but using the 2.4 GHz spectrum.

The Unlicensed World


Chipsets: Intersil, Agere,

Cisco, Intel
Equipment: Cisco, Primary wireless LAN
802.11b (WiFi) 300 feet 11 Mbps 2.4 GHz
Proxim, Netgear, Vivato, market today
Services: Boingo, Cometa

Useful for corporate

Major 802.11b vendors
802.11a (WiFi) 150+ feet 54 Mbps 5 GHz networks, backhaul, and
plus Atheros, Bermai
media applications

Major 802.11b vendors Backward-compatible

802.11g (WiFi) 300 feet 54 Mbps 2.4 GHz
plus Broadcom with 802.11b devices

Ericsson, Nokia, Intel, Originally designed for

300 feet 1 Mbps 2.4 GHz Toshiba, Microsoft, cable replacement; mar-
3Com, Motorola ket niche unclear

30 feet at 110 XtremeSpectrum, High-bitrate personal

802.15.3a 110 and 200 Wideband
Mbps or 12 feet Motorola, TI, area networking for
(WiMedia) Mbps (3.1–10 GHz)
at 200 Mbps TimeDomain, Philips media devices

900 MHz, 2.4

802.15.4 Philips, Honeywell, Low-bitrate personal area
200 feet 250 kbps GHz, or wide-
(Zigbee) Mitsubishi, Motorola. networking for sensors

10-66 GHz for

802.16; 2-10 Motorola, Alvarion Broadband metropolitan-
802.16 (WiMax) 30 miles 70 Mbps
GHz for Proxim, Fujitsu, Aperto area network connections

Cisco, Flarion, Ethernet, currently

15 km 1 Mbps 3.5 GHz HP, Nextel Mobile envisioned for licensed
wireless spectrum, but may evolve


The remaining alphabet soup of IEEE 802.11 Metropolitan-Area Networks and Last Mile (802.16)
standards are mostly variants of these protocols. Metropolitan-area networks (MANs) operate over
For example, 802.11e, based largely on technology longer distances than LANs, typically a mile or
developed by Sharewave (now part of chip vendor more. They are designed to provide relatively high
Cirrus Logic), adds quality of service mechanisms bandwidth to a moderate number of fixed sites,
to better support video and voice traffic. 802.11i such as homes and businesses, compared to LANs,
adds a new security protocol to the relatively which connect individual devices. One MAN appli-
ineffective WEP encryption in 802.11b. 802.11j is cation is the so-called “broadband last mile,” which
a WLAN protocol for the 4.9 GHz to 5 GHz can substitute for wired solutions such as digital
unlicensed spectrum in Japan. subscriber lines and cable modems.39 However,

Radio Revolution

MAN systems are also used to provide “backhaul” eventually become standards-compliant. A new
connections from such last-mile networks to cen- industry association, WiMax, hopes to do for unli-
tral aggregation points, point-to-point connections censed wireless MANs what WiFi did for LANs.
between facilities, or coverage throughout a Other companies are taking a different route to
campus or other geographically defined facility. deliver wireless MAN connectivity. Instead of
Increasingly, WISPs and non-profit community long-range MANs sending data directly to cus-
access networks are creating MANs using line-of- tomers, they envision wireless mesh networks using
sight relays on unlicensed spectrum (at 5GHz) and short-range links to cover neighborhoods. One
WiFi (at 2.4 GHz, for the last few hundred feet) to start-up, Skypilot, plans to use standard 802.11b
offer affordable last-mile connections in rural and radios in the home connected to rooftop units
low-income areas.40 based on 802.11a with added mesh networking
The IEEE has established a standards group, software. Omnilux plans to use free-space optics
802.16, for wireless MANs. The original 802.16 technology, combined with mesh networking.
specification was designed for very high frequen- Free-space optics uses lasers that operate in the
cies, over 10 GHz. A more recent subgroup, visible light range of the spectrum, above the radio
802.16a, is crafting MAN standards for 2-10 GHz frequencies. It is therefore technically outside the
frequencies that, unlike the original standards, scope of FCC licensing, which applies only to
don’t require line-of-site visibility. 802.16 envisions communication “by wire or radio.”
systems delivering 70 Mbps of data over a 30 mile
range. An industry alliance called WiMax, includ- Personal-Area Networks (802.15)
ing Intel, Proxim, Fujitsu, Alvarion, Aperto, and Moving the opposite direction from MANs,
Nokia, has been formed to promote and ensure personal-area networks (PANs) are designed for
interoperability of wireless MANs. very short-range connections, no more than a few
Though designed as LAN technologies, 802.11a dozen feet. WiFi can cover these distances, but
and b are being used by some companies such as because WiFi devices are designed to serve larger
Etherlinx as the foundation for MAN systems. areas and provide relatively high-bandwidth con-
Generally these systems use the commodity 802.11 nections, they require more power and have higher
physical layer and devices, adding their own media equipment costs than would be necessary for close-
access control (MAC) layer to boost range. in, low-speed tasks such as communicating
Another option, which several service providers are between a mobile phone and a headset.
reportedly considering, is to use standard 802.11 PAN applications are essentially “cable replace-
devices with enhanced access points from compa- ment.” They are tasks that people perform today
nies such as Vivato that boost the effective range. by stringing wires between devices, but that could
Several companies including Motorola (with its be done with more freedom if the wires weren’t
Canopy system), Magis Networks, Proxim, IP necessary. These include scenarios such as printing
Wireless, Navini, BeamReach, Aperto, Soma Net- from a laptop computer to a nearby printer, send-
works, and Alvarion offer proprietary products that ing voice signals between a cordless phone and a
are similar to 802.11b and 802.11a. Typically these base station, and pulling a contact from a PDA to a
systems offer better performance, reliability, or mobile phone. There are also high-capacity cable
features such as security that aren’t well imple- replacement tasks involving rich media, such as
mented in the 802.11 standards. Today, most of sending music between an Internet-connected
them operate in the 5 GHz band and focus on home server and a home theater or stereo system.
markets such as last-mile residential and small- The standards body for PANs is IEEE 802.15.
business connectivity, especially in rural or other- Bluetooth was the first prominent PAN standard,
wise underserved areas. Many of these companies incorporated into IEEE 802.15.1. Based on
are part of the 802.16 effort. It can be expected technology originally developed by Ericsson, it is
that, as with WiFi, many proprietary systems will supported by a private industry standards body that

The Unlicensed World

now has more than 2000 members. Bluetooth pro- Sharp, Time Domain, and XtremeSpectrum have
vides approximately 1 Mbps connections over 30 created the WiMedia Alliance to promote this
feet by automatically creating network clusters of application. Though UWB was late to the PAN
nearby devices. party because of its recent approval, it has recently
Bluetooth received a great deal of media been gaining adherents within the 802.15 group.
attention when the consortium was first Most of the proposals for the forthcoming
announced, because of its heavyweight backers and 802.15.3a standard, a higher-speed PAN protocol,
excitement about the potential of all things wireless involve some form of UWB.
at the time. However, interoperability issues and
questions about where Bluetooth really fits in the Success Stories
market have limited adoption. Bluetooth mobile Today’s WiFi Markets
phones, PDAs, and laptops are now available, and There are four major WiFi markets today: home
costs are coming down as volumes increase. networking, corporate/campus networking, com-
Even shorter range and lower speed than Blue- mercial hotspots, and public access.
tooth is Zigbee (802.15.4). The protocol, originally
developed by Philips, is optimized for applications HOME NETWORKING means sharing an Internet connec-
such as distributed sensor networks, which must tion, or a peripheral such as a printer, among more
only send a few kilobits of data at a time. Zigbee, than one PC. Vendors such as Proxim, Netgear,
like Bluetooth, is currently supported by an alliance Linksys (now part of Cisco), D-Link, and 2Wire
of companies including Honeywell, Mitsubishi, and have sold millions of access points and cards to end-
Motorola. It works on various unlicensed frequen- users for this purpose. Broadband service providers
cies, providing 20-250 kbps connections over 30 are now getting into the game, recognizing that
to 200 feet. The big advantage of Zigbee is its low- there is significant demand for home networking as
power consumption and low cost, which are an add-on to high-speed Internet access.
essential for remote monitoring and sensing.
Ultra-wideband (UWB) is more than a PAN CORPORATE OR CAMPUS ENVIRONMENTS (in both the business
technology. However, its initial applications in the and university sense) are slightly different than
communications market are for short-range, PAN- homes. Except for very small offices, multiple access
type uses. UWB is a form of spread-spectrum points are required to cover the facility. These
transmission that uses such a wide band, and such customers generally want security, authentication,
low power, that it can “underlay” with licensed and management capabilities to operate the WiFi
users in the same band. The UWB signal appears network in conjunction with their existing wired
as background noise to other transmitters. The networking infrastructure. All the major networking
nature of the technology gives it several other vendors, such as Cisco, Lucent, and Nortel, now
advantages, including very low power consump- have substantial corporate WiFi customer bases.
tion, security, and penetration of walls. Until the
FCC’s decision in early 2002 to legalize UWB for HOTSPOTS are access points available to anyone within
communications, its primary application was for a location, such as an airport, a café, or a hotel
ground-penetrating radar and military uses. lobby. Sometimes the hotspots require a fee for
Today, companies such as XtremeSpectrum and access. Vendors such as Wayport and Mobilestar
Time Domain are building UWB chipsets target- (now T-Mobile) deploy hotspots in locations that
ing short-range, high-bandwidth data applications. receive significant foot traffic, as both a money-
UWB systems can deliver 100 Mbps or more over maker and an incentive for more traffic. The best-
short distances, which makes them ideal for uses known hotspot deployment is at Starbucks coffee-
such as streaming audio or video between media houses, now operated by T-Mobile. Aggregators
devices within the home. Several companies such as Boingo and iPass allow users to pay one fee
including HP, Kodak, Philips, Motorola, Samsung, and access multiple networks of hotspots.

Radio Revolution

NYCwireless: Evolution of a provider TowerStream. Most public access points

Wireless User Group in the city ultimately access the Internet via a DSL
Internet connection.
To followers of the wireless broadband revolution, The efforts of NYCwireless have not gone unno-
New York has been a hotspot of activity among U.S. ticed by broadband service providers. Some providers
cities, and the NYCwireless user group has been lead- have slapped “acceptable use” clauses on their sub-
ing the movement. The group began as an informal scriber contracts in an effort to discourage wireless
network of early WiFi adopters who placed access bandwidth sharing. One large cable operator has
points on their apartment windows to share their been accused of sending out a WiFi “sniffer” to scour
broadband connections with the public parks below the city in search of access points leading back to
their buildings. As the trend gained acceptance, the their customers’ connections to close down the
users organized to form NYCwireless, a non-profit, transmitters.
volunteer organization, to encourage others to share However, as WiFi use has reached a critical mass,
their broadband and foster an ethic of free public more broadband providers are trying to enter the
Internet access across the city. public space arena. Speakeasy, Inc., a national DSL
“New Yorkers live in cramped quarters, and our reseller, now offers “WiFi Netshare,” a service that
goal has been to get people out of their apartments allows users to resell their broadband connections to
and into the public parks,” says NYCwireless volun- neighbors, with Speakeasy handling the billing. And
teer Dustin Goodwin. The group considers ubiquitous Verizon DSL has built a number of hotspots in New
broadband access to be a public amenity equivalent York that are free to their DSL home subscribers.
to streetlights or water fountains. However, it’s diffi- NYCwireless volunteer Dustin Goodwin sees the
cult, if not impossible, to provide public parks with commercial efforts to deploy WiFi in the city as a
wired broadband access because of construction direct response to NYCwireless’ success. While some
impediments on historic or public land. Cheap, and see the entrance of commercial players into the
easily installed WiFi technology allowed apartment public space as a threat to free access, others see
dwellers with good line-of-site to their parks to the development as an important step to recognizing
install the 802.11b transmitters and address the WiFi as a free public amenity that companies and
problem for themselves. organizations should provide as a value-added service
Volunteers from NYCwireless have built networks to their constituents.
in Bryant Park, Bowling Green Park, and Tompkins Now that wireless broadband has gained a foothold
Square Park, among others. This past year, founding in New York City parks, Goodwin says that NYCwire-
members of the group formed a consulting firm, less is expanding its mission to resemble a volunteer
Emenity, to deploy six more public hot spots in lower “Geek Corps” for communities without affordable
Manhattan for the NYC Downtown Alliance. The new broadband Internet. NYCwireless volunteers have
company was started to provide service to commer- trained residents of a community housing organization
cial clients, but their mission of building public access to build and maintain their own wireless network,
networks remains intact. which will provide more than 50 residents with pri-
Emenity has recently built a public network in vate, high-speed connections. This effort is part of a
Union Square Park. This project is unique in that it growing trend among wireless community groups
relies on a wireless backhaul to connect to the Inter- across the country to bring affordable broadband to
net provided by the commercial wireless broadband underserved communities. – Matt Barranca

The Unlicensed World

The spread of hotspots has been remarkable.

Boingo now has more than 1,200 nodes on its net-
work. T-Mobile operates 2,300 hotspots, including
Starbucks coffeehouses, Borders bookstores, Amer-
ican Airlines Admirals Clubs, and terminals at fif-
teen airports in North America. It has announced
plans to put hotspots in the more than 1,000
Kinkos copy shops throughout the U.S.
This is only a fraction of the total. One Website
lists more than 5,000 hotspots worldwide, includ-
ing both commercial and community nodes.41 And
that’s just the beginning. According to Pyramid
Research, 1,000 hotels offer WiFi access today,
mostly in lobbies and meeting rooms, and 25,000
will have it by 2007.42 Cometa, a joint venture
funded by AT&T Wireless, IBM, Intel Capital,
and venture capital firms 3i and Apax Partners,
plans to build 20,000 hotspots using a wholesale
model, with its first customer being McDonald’s.
In addition to the access points intended for
public consumption, most private WiFi nodes do
not use any security mechanism, making them
available to anyone within range. A map of Man-
hattan prepared last year by the Public Internet
Project, whose volunteers systematically drove
through the streets with WiFi-sniffing equipment,
shows public and home access points already cov-
ering most of the island (see Figure 12). Prelimi-
nary results from the group’s 2003 survey suggest
WiFi density has become significantly greater since
the original map was published.

PUBLIC ACCESS means providing free connectivity to FIGURE 12 – WIFI ACCESS POINTS IN MANHATTAN
users within a particular area. Sometimes this is
done by private groups sharing their own networks
or promoting the concept of ubiquitous wireless around the world. Typically, these groups are early
connectivity. In other cases the access is funded by users of WiFi technologies. They come together in
public organizations, non-profits, or corporations physical meetings and through online discussions
as a type of civic amenity. to share experiences, ask questions, and experiment
In all, the number of regular wireless LAN users with new technologies. In many cases, they install
is expected to grow sevenfold in the next four their own WiFi infrastructure, with access open to
years, from 4.2 million to 31 million, according to all. They deploy these hotspots where they can or
the Gartner Group.43 want to, rather than follow some master plan.
The most active community WiFi groups
Independent Community Access Points include SF Wireless in San Francisco; NYCwire-
There are dozens of community WiFi organiza- less in New York; SeattleWireless; and the Per-
tions in cities throughout the United States, and sonal Telco Project in Portland, OR. The infra-

Radio Revolution

structure is typically contributed by members, popular outdoor gathering place in midtown. The
though increasingly these community groups have University of Georgia has funded a network of
formed partnerships with local businesses and com- WiFi hotspots covering all of downtown Athens,
munity development organizations. GA. In Long Beach, CA, the Long Beach Eco-
nomic Development Bureau partnered with several
Hotspots as Civic Amenities local businesses to establish a WiFi network cover-
In several cities, hotspot deployments are being ing several downtown blocks, with plans to expand
funded by civic organizations or corporate spon- it throughout the city’s business district.
sors as civic amenities, like parks or playgrounds. For the civic groups involved, the costs of these
In Manhattan, Intel and the Bryant Park Restora- WiFi networks are relatively minor, especially
tion Corporation supported a project by NYCwire- when businesses become involved and provide free
less to establish a WiFi network in Bryant Park, a Internet bandwidth and other services. Wireless

A Community Access Model But BAWUG has not stopped there. Under the
for the Last Mile leadership of Tim Pozar, a telecommunications engi-
neer and one of BAWUG’s founders, the group has
While the success of commercial WISPs has gener- launched the Bay Area Research Wireless Network
ated much attention, grassroots community access (BARWN). BARWN is an active wireless network with
networks or CANs are the originators of the unli- a mission to discover the best technical solutions to
censed movement. Most CANs are groups of like- bring wireless broadband to remote and economically
minded individuals sharing a similar philosophy—that disadvantaged communities.
citizens should have open, inexpensive, and ubiqui- BARWN has set up two centrally located access
tous access to the Internet. Using affordable and points atop the San Bruno Mountain and Potrero Hill
easily installed WiFi technology, community mem- in south San Francisco, allowing anyone within an 8-
bers in Seattle, New York, Austin, San Francisco, Port- mile radius to point a 2.4 GHz antenna at the
land, Oregon, and Athens, Georgia have built BARWN towers to share the 11Mbps of bandwidth
expanding networks of independently maintained they provide. Pozar says that a third public access
wireless access points. point is soon to be installed on Yerba Buena Island in
Most CANs provide access to public spaces, how- the San Francisco Bay, which will link to East Bay and
ever some groups have made forays into residential light-up an underserved area called Treasure Island.
space, by connecting neighborhoods with centrally All of these access points are constructed with non-
placed access points. One such organization is the proprietary equipment and open protocols to keep
Bay Area Wireless Users Group (BAWUG), an informal costs down and to learn what technologies can be
group of wireless early adopters who began mounting most easily adopted by lower income communities.
WiFi transmitters on the roofs of their homes to give As evidence of the network’s stability and flexibility,
neighbors free or shared-cost Internet connections via BARWN is working with the City of San Francisco to
their DSL and cable lines. While the cable and phone use this network for public safety communications—
companies didn’t approve of the practice, consumers such as earthquake or disaster response. Pozar says
did and access points began popping up all over the one application for the unlicensed service would be to
city. There are now more than 25 BAWUG access provide streaming video of a disaster site to command
points in the area. centers to evaluate response tactics. – Matt Barranca

The Unlicensed World

connectivity is becoming a benefit that draws some of these communities have seized upon
people into downtown areas. unlicensed wireless as an alternative route to
provide connectivity.
Internet Connectivity for Rural Communities In Laramie, WY, a group of technologists led
High-speed Internet connections are available to by Brett Glass established LARIAT, a non-profit
most of the U.S. population today through digital community wireless network. It has been in
subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem service. operation since the mid-1990s, originally using
However, there are still tens of millions of Americans pre-WiFi unlicensed equipment in the 900 MHz
who live in rural or otherwise underserved areas, band. A similar effort is, a
where such broadband offerings are not yet avail- cooperative in a rural part of Colorado that is
able. In some cases, they are unlikely to be avail- offering WiFi connectivity to local residents
able any time soon. Technically minded citizens in who have no other good broadband option.

Revolution in the Rural Last Mile: long-distance transmissions, and point-to-multipoint

Unlicensed Spectrum Closing the transmissions to connect neighborhood access points
Technology Divide in Northern Virginia to subscribers.
The first leg of the network travels 18 miles from a
Despite their proximity to Northern Virginia’s Internet mountaintop transceiver using 5 GHz bands and
backbone, many towns in Loudoun County have no OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing)
broadband access. The mountainous western regions point-to-point technology. OFDM transmissions make
of the county are far from the technology infrastruc- efficient, and secure, use of spread spectrum by divid-
ture of Northern Virginia where companies like AOL ing data into packets and encoding it over multiple
and VeriSign reside. However, because of license- frequencies, without requiring perfect line-of-site.
exempt wireless activity, the technology divide across Long distance point-to-point transmissions are the
the county is starting to close. standard for rural WISPs seeking to reach larger pop-
After the technology bubble of the late 90s burst, ulation pockets. Under Part 15 rules for unlicensed
Northern Virginia lost as many as 30,000 jobs. Many usage, the FCC allows operators to make point-to-
laid-off professionals accustomed to broadband con- point connections without reducing Transmitter Power
nections at their work started their own businesses or Output (TPO) for the 5.725 GHz and 5.825 GHz
began working from their homes, creating a large band. Because of this regulatory latitude for narrow
demand for high-speed home services. One start-up, beam transmissions, providers are able to reach long
Roadstar Internet, is trying to meet that demand with line-of-site distances with relatively low power.
an expanding rural wireless network. The Roadstar network makes final, last-mile con-
Started in the autumn of 2002, Roadstar Internet nections within neighborhoods by using modified
connects more than 150 rural households and small WiFi wireless access points mounted on customer
businesses relying only on unlicensed spectrum. Most silos, barns, and rooftops. WISPs are able to transmit
wireless subscribers do not know exactly how their distances greater than the 300-foot standards for
service operates. What matters most to users is not WiFi technology by creating sectorized cells with
the technology behind the service, but that their high-gain, directional antennas. These last-mile con-
connections are fast and reliable. The Roadstar net- nections on the 2.4 GHz band are the result of good
work is similar to many other WISP efforts, using a planning and engineering, and typically reach two to
combination of point-to-point connections for the three miles. – Matt Barranca

Radio Revolution

Meanwhile, Dewayne Hendricks of the Dandin has traditionally been prohibitive, given that most
Group is spearheading efforts to provide wireless residents cannot afford to pay typical monthly
Internet connectivity, using WiFi and other broadband prices. WiFi is one answer.
technologies, on several Indian reservations in the In Boston, an MIT graduate student named
U.S. and Canada. More than 1,000 commercial Richard O’Bryant led an effort to put free WiFi
WISPs are providing similar wireless broadband hotspots in Camfield Estates, a 102-unit public
services, mostly in underserved rural areas across housing development in the Roxbury area, with
the nation (see sidebar, page 34).44 funding from HP and Microsoft. In Philadelphia, the
United Way is building two WiFi hotspots in the
Internet Connectivity for Low-Income Areas poor section of West Philadelphia, which will offer
High-speed connectivity has important benefits for broadband Internet access for $5 to $10 per month.
low-income and underserved communities. Broad- It plans to give away computers and wireless cards to
band Internet access opens the door to educational, people in the community who cannot afford them.
informational, job-related, benefits, health, and In Portland, OR, a non-profit called One Economy
other materials. However, the costs of wiring low- is putting WiFi connections into three public hous-
income facilities such as public housing complexes ing developments, serving more than 500 residents.

Future Scenarios

Expanding the Space of Possibilities At the same time, the government

We have only scratched the surface of regulators who established the 2.4 GHz
what dynamic wireless systems can do. and 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum bands
The growth of WiFi has been so where WiFi operates had even less idea
striking, its possibilities so exciting, that of what was coming. Especially for 2.4
WiFi has become virtually synonymous GHz, they were looking at “industrial,
with unlicensed wireless and open scientific, and medical” equipment, and
spectrum. This is a mistake. WiFi is not devices such as cordless phones. The
the culmination of the wireless story; it rules they created for managing those
is merely the end of the beginning. bands have been highly successful, but
they were hardly designed to maximize
WIFI HAS TWO GREAT LIMITATIONS: ITS the potential. Based on our current
PROTOCOL, AND ITS SPECTRUM ENVIRONMENT. experience, we can design rules expressly
The engineers who created the 802.11 to promote efficiency and innovation
family of protocols had no idea that WiFi through unlicensed wireless technologies.
would take off the way it has, and would First and foremost, this means making
be used in so many different deployment available more spectrum for unlicensed
scenarios. They were creating a wireless uses, whether it be through dedicated
Ethernet standard, parallel to the wired unlicensed bands, shared underlay
Ethernet standard that is the basis for access, or opportunistic sharing. Second,
most office computer networks today. it means putting in place minimal rules
Thus, WiFi has limited range, and a for that spectrum, which may be as little
routing layer that isn’t particularly good as power limits, to foster an environment
at mesh networking, quality of service, of efficient cooperative development.
interference management, security, or The wireless future, under any sce-
many other functions that are important nario, is likely to be marked by increas-
for many of its potential markets. ingly pervasive but non-uniform connec-

Future Scenarios

tivity. No wireless technology, let alone one service getting it in every dry cleaner will take longer, as
provider, can address all the markets and deploy- will getting it in every train and airplane.
ment scenarios, from short-range low-bandwidth to The downside of such a heterogeneous environ-
long-distance broadband. Even if unlicensed sys- ment is that everyone is not connected all the time,
tems succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, there and any one system or technology will provide
will be a need for licensed services for many years. only a small percentage of what connectivity does
Even if there is soon WiFi in every coffeehouse, exist. The natural impulse in communications is to

An Unlicensed Education: A Wireless Model transmits to a 150-foot tower located at Kingwood

to Connect Rural School Communities Elementary School. The two towers share a narrow
beam, point-to-point connection with a third tower
While U.S. school districts have been issued the com- owned by the local Seven Springs Ski Resort.
mand to “leave no child behind,” many rural schools are Simply bringing the technology to the area wasn’t
without the resources to bring broadband Internet the end goal – using the network to connect the
access into their classrooms. This last-mile problem pres- school with the community is the ultimate design of
ents hardships not only for schools, but also for local the project. Both schools have put many classroom
households and businesses unable to fully participate in operations on-line. Teachers use Palm Pilots and
the information economy. A public/private partnership laptops to track student progress and record grades,
has been formed in western Pennsylvania to use unli- which are available to parents online.
censed spectrum and the social capital of local school The project also gives community residents a chance
districts to address the last mile on their own. The to purchase access from the school’s network, with the
efforts of the Broadband Rural Access Information school district serving as a WISP for the area. Sting has
Network (BRAIN) have yielded great results connecting installed access points in many neighborhoods, and the
rural areas, and their example could provide a model for company is offering subscription rates between $11
rural school communities across the country. and $20 per month, depending on the number of sub-
The BRAIN effort began with the vision of a school scribers the school can attract. Currently, thirty-five
district superintendent, Andy Demidont, and the help families have been connected, with an additional 65
of a large regional WISP, Sting Communications. Demi- families expected to be online in the coming months.
dont wanted to provide high-speed access to Rock- From the project’s onset, Sting hoped their school-
wood High School and Kingwood Elementary School in based approach could be replicated in other rural com-
mountainous Somerset County. The schools’ existing munities. Building on what they have learned in Somer-
dial-up accounts were expensive, and rendered connec- set County, Sting has built a much larger network in
tion speeds barely surpassing 14 kbps. Cambria and Clearfield Counties to connect four more
Relying on technical guidance from Sting Commu- regional school districts. Sting vice president Bob Roland
nications, and using grant money awarded from the says that this new network spans an 1100 square-mile
Individuals with Disabilities Act and E-Rate discounts, area, and uses both 5 GHz frequency-hopping spread
the school district installed wireless access points on spectrum and 802.11 connections for the last mile.
the roofs of both schools, turning both schools into For the next phase, BRAIN has applied for an
state-of-the-art, wireless hotspots. additional $7.4 million grant from the USDA’s Rural
In total, Sting Communications installed three tow- Utilities Service to “light-up” a wide corridor between
ers, creating a pie-shaped hot zone using the 5.8 GHz central Pennsylvania and Maryland. If successful, this
and 2.4 GHz license-exempt bands. The Rockwood effort could provide a model for building a wide-area
High School gymnasium hosts a 100-foot tower that regional network, one school at a time. – Matt Barranca

Radio Revolution

try to build all-encompassing networks, but some-

times that isn’t the best approach. WiFi hotspots
are spreading because they are cheap, funded by
users or facility owners, and go where there is Net
demand today. They don’t yet go where there isn’t
demand, but the good news is that users need not Transmitter
at regional Antenna
pay for the extra cost of putting access points there. backbone
at local
access point
As software-defined radios mature, they will make
it possible to stitch together some systems at the FIGURE 13 – WIRELESS LAST MILE: In one wireless last-mile
end-user device. In general, though, the real scenario, a transmitter tower connected to the Internet
question is not how to provide ubiquitous wireless transmits in a point-to-point connection to a community
connectivity in the abstract, but how to address access point, which makes point-to-multipoint or mesh
concrete needs and market opportunities. network connections to households.
The scenarios below represent examples of
opportunities that unlicensed wireless technologies to link them together. Even if signals could reach a
could address. They are relatively straightforward neighborhood access point, backhaul costs would
extensions of existing technology. Most, however, be significant, because every access point would
will require either spectrum reforms to expand need a wired connection to a T-1 or larger circuit.
the space available for unlicensed devices, or at We can, however, envision scenarios for
the very least no regulatory actions that would unlicensed wireless last-mile connectivity based on
hamstring unlicensed devices in the existing areas. technology that is in the market or likely to be soon.
For homes, a mesh network configuration could be
The Last Wireless Mile used to shorten link lengths, increase robustness
Broadband connectivity to homes is a topic of great through alternate traffic paths, and address impedi-
consternation in the communications industry today. ments such as trees. A range-extending technology
Telephone companies are deploying DSL and cable such as Vivato’s phased-array antennas could also be
TV operators are deploying cable modem systems. employed to receive signals from a cluster of nodes
However, many millions of Americans still have nei- in a local area. For businesses or residences wanting
ther available to them, and a greater number have more bandwidth, an 802.16 wireless MAN technol-
only one option. Prices of these broadband services, ogy could be used to deliver tens of megabits per
approximately $50/month, are high compared to the second over many miles. This same technology, or a
rest of the world. These services are generally asym- variant, could be used to reduce the costs of back-
metric, providing far more bandwidth down to the haul, replacing costly wired connections.
user than up from the user to the Internet. Com- An end-user would buy a device, whether a
bined with terms of service restrictions, this architec- dedicated piece of wireless hardware, a broadband
ture limits users from running home servers and “residential gateway,” or a piece of general-purpose
other actions. For business users, who typically need hardware such as a laptop. The device could be
higher bandwidth than homes, the only viable option designed to operate with a particular unlicensed
is often a traditional T-1 line at $1,000 per month or wireless network, it might be deployed by a service
more. There is thus great interest in alternatives. provider, or it might have “discovery” capability to
Basic WiFi or its variants, 802.11a and 802.11g, automatically locate and connect with nearby
cannot simply be put into service for last-mile access points or wireless end-users.
deployments. WiFi is a short-range technology It is typically assumed today that last-mile broad-
designed primarily for connections to a nearby band networks are designed to provide access to the
hotspot. Even if every home in a neighborhood Internet (see Figure 13). Certainly, any broadband
had a WiFi access point, few of those nodes would customer will want to access Internet-based services
see one another and there would be no mechanism available through the World Wide Web, as well as

Future Scenarios

global email, instant messaging, and other applica- Interoperable Public Safety Communications
tions. However, these are not the only things that Today, public safety agencies use many different
an unlicensed last-mile wireless network could wireless communications systems. Many of them use
deliver. There is often value in online communica- outdated technology. Few if any can talk to one
tions within a community, especially when that another. In an emergency, if the fire department can’t
community has not previously had a high-speed, communicate with the police, the consequences
always-on network. These range from intra-com- could be disastrous. On September 11, 2001, fire-
munity email to school bulletin boards to decisions fighters were trapped in the World Trade Center
of the city planning board. They could be called because they were unable to learn from other public
community intranet appli- safety officers outside that the buildings were about
“I am hopeful that cations. Because the traffic to collapse. Stories abound, from 9/11 and other
is local, there is no need to times, of firemen using commercial mobile phones
unlicensed operations connect to a backbone because they had better performance and a wider
provider. In fact, there may audience than their expensive private radios. And
will…eventually provide not be a need for any when these networks go down, everything goes
provider at all. If users pro- down with them. Unfortunately, public safety organi-
a last-mile application to vide their own wireless zations are saddled with many legacy communica-
nodes, and no node is tions systems that are costly and difficult to upgrade.
connect people’s homes overwhelmed with traffic, As software-defined radios (SDR) mature, they
the community-wide net- could replace the cacophony of devices with a single
to the Internet, offering work would function peer- set of devices. One phone handset, PDA, or laptop
to-peer, much as local area could tap into any of the existing systems. A fire-
a real alternative to networks in businesses fighter arriving on the scene could instantly check
do today. police communications as well as data transmissions
telephone wires, cable, When the network providing essential information directly from dis-
needs to connect to the patchers, such as building maps. Such a system would
and satellite connections.” Internet, an economic require robust security and authentication mecha-
problem emerges. Internet nisms, but these could also be built into the devices.
— FCC COMMISSIONER KEVIN MARTIN backbones charge for use The result would be both lower costs and more
based on bandwidth con- effective systems for critical public safety services.
sumed. Even if Internet-based services and content
are a minority of traffic on a wireless community Adaptive Mobile Phones
last-mile network, there still must be backhaul con- Mobile phone networks today are self-contained
nections to the Internet, and these must be paid for. entities. In the U.S., for example, there are six com-
There is a “free-rider” problem if the node con- peting national networks. Each has its own network
nected to the backbone must bear all the costs, of transmission towers. If you are within range of
independent of whether there is any congestion five of those towers, but not the one for your
across the unlicensed wireless links between the service provider, you won’t get service. Things are a
community nodes. It may be necessary to develop little better in Europe, where universal adoption of
some sort of pricing mechanism for end-users in the GSM standard allows for more roaming agree-
such a situation. However, pricing could be imple- ments between carriers, but each carrier still must
mented in several ways. It does not require central maintain its own complete network.
providers or per-packet settlement charges. For As mobile phones evolve into SDR devices, the
example, a cooperative could collect dues from all structure of the business may change. Carriers
community members and apply those to the back- will be able to share infrastructure much more
haul charge, with some limits on each user’s band- widely, because their subscribers will be able to
width to prevent free riding. transparently access transmissions from whatever

Radio Revolution

tower is closest to them, regardless of what nodes would reduce costs, avoiding the need to send
frequency band or encoding mechanism it uses. data long distances over wireless networks, and
Further, there are an increasing number of local would give users the maximum possible capacity,
connectivity points, such as WiFi hotspots, that are since WiFi hotspots tend to offer substantially
separate from the wide-area wireless networks. greater bandwidth than wide-area data networks.
When a user was within range of a hotspot, adaptive
mobile phones could transparently shift communica- Personal Broadcast Networks
tions from voice transmissions over the mobile net- Today, broadcasting is the domain of the few. Only
works to voice-over-IP or packet data connections companies with licenses have access to the airwaves to
through the WiFi infrastructure. Tapping these local deliver programming. Using a combination of the

Think Globally, Act Locally: work isn’t the only successful model. Hundreds of start-
Two WISPs Come of Age up WISPs have relied on skillful engineering to build
smaller networks for remote communities. Prairie iNet,
At the onset of the unlicensed movement, most Wireless of Des Moines, Iowa has used this localized approach to
ISPs (WISPs) were scaled-up WiFi hotspots built from build a network of unlicensed wireless oases in more
adapted, off-the-shelf, 802.11b equipment. But unli- than 120 rural communities in Illinois and Iowa.
censed devices have advanced beyond WiFi to include Neil Mulholland, Prairie iNet CEO, estimates that to
frequency-hopping, non-line-of-sight transmitters, and reach their standard for “carrier class” service, the com-
other technologies such as high-gain directional pany invests $100,000 in each population center for
antennas that reach distances well over 20 miles. The base station, customer premise equipment, and a wire-
most successful WISPs have outgrown the WiFi model less link to their DS-3 Internet connection. Ideally, the
and evolved into sophisticated wide-area networks company covers their investment in each local network
with a high standard for service, security, and stability. after the first 75 customers. The company has more
AMA*TechTel Communications of Amarillo, Texas than 4,000 subscribing customers in total.
is one example. With more than 4,000 users on their Both models – AMA’s wide-area design and Prairie
license-exempt network, AMA is one of the country’s iNet’s localized networks – present varying benefits.
largest regional carriers of wireless broadband. AMA’s Regional utility companies can learn from AMA and
63-tower deployment is a 20,000 square-mile, con- leverage their tower infrastructure to provide virtual
tiguous network providing secure service to numerous private networks for campus clients and basic service
towns, three college campuses, multiple school sys- for their residential customers. The East Bay Municipal
tems, hospitals, and banks. Utility District in Oakland, California has installed the
AMA relies on equipment manufactured by Alvarion Motorola Canopy system; Owensboro Municipal Utili-
to access the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz unli- ties in Kentucky and Wheatland Electric Cooperative
censed bands for backhaul and point-to-multipoint con- in Kansas have both installed Alvarion networks; and
nections. The network’s expansiveness is due to AMA’s Midwest Wireless, a rural cellular provider, has built a
partnership with Attebury Grain, a large grain storage broadband business using unlicensed spectrum.
company that initially contracted AMA to wirelessly con- Prairie iNet’s localized model has been replicated
nect their grain elevators to the commodities market. in smaller scales in rural areas across the country. In-
After the project, the two companies partnered, using Stat/MDR, a technology research company, esti-
Attebury’s numerous grain elevators as transmitter tow- mates that there are up to 1,500 start-up WISPs in
ers to provide service to local towns and businesses. operation. Low start-up costs, numerous equipment
While AMA’s wide-area deployment may be a daunt- options, and high consumer demand account for this
ing example for WISP entrepreneurs, this ambitious net- growth. – Matt Barranca

Future Scenarios

WiFi Calling: Campuses Turn tops and PDAs into “softphones.” Dartmouth imple-
to WiFi for Voice Applications mented their voice over wireless local area network
(VoWLAN) when they realized they were spending more
Since the beginning of the wireless movement, col- money billing students for long-distance calls than they
lege and corporate campuses have been fertile were taking in. The unlicensed VoWLAN provides a sim-
ground for extensive WiFi networks. The latest trend ilar quality of service to traditional telephone service,
for campus organizations is to bypass local telephone but without the billing and administrative costs.
carriers and use their unlicensed wireless networks to Hospitals have also been early adopters of
support voice applications. VoWLAN technology. One company, Vocera, has cre-
In one example, the University of Arkansas invested ated an 802.11b communications device that doctors
$4 million in Cisco’s call-processing software, CallMan- and nurses wear on their uniform collars to communi-
ager, to traffic local calls over the University’s existing cate with each other remotely. Users speak the name
WiFi network. The University has reduced their monthly of the person they’d like to contact into the device,
telephone service fees from $530,000 to $6,000 a and they are instantly connected through the
month. At this savings rate, the University should VoWLAN. The device has the potential to eliminate
recoup their call-processing investment in six months. intercoms and speakers that broadcast announce-
Dartmouth College has a similar program, offering ments or pages meant for only one person to an
software to incoming freshman that turns wireless lap- entire hospital floor. – Matt Barranca

techniques described in this paper, it is possible to mass-market content would only be a small part of
imagine a world in which anyone can be a broadcaster. the total. Working parents would use personal
As each user sends out video streams, they would broadcast networks to tap into video images of
be relayed by other users wherever infrastructure their children at home, streamed from Webcams to
was unavailable. Cognitive radios would seek out their mobile phones. Distance learning courses
free space in the spectrum to carry the signals. could be delivered on demand, or specific instruc-
Content creators could contract with operators tional modules could be delivered dynamically
of virtual broadcast networks who aggregated when and where they were needed. Need to
together reliable high-speed connectivity to reach change a flat tire and don’t know what to do?
an audience, creating a bottom-up division Need on-the-spot medical advice? Use a personal
between different classes of traffic. broadcast network to watch an instructional video
Who would want to have their own broadcast or establish a videoconference with an expert.
network? Some people would want to deliver the Predicting the future is dangerous. Any scenarios
kinds of creative programming available on televi- we envision today will likely miss the specific kinds of
sion today. These personal wireless networks would applications and content that will be popular tomor-
become a much more powerful version of the row. But that doesn’t matter. The infrastructure of
alternative outlets available today, such as public emerging wireless technologies can be adapted to
access channels on cable TV systems, public broad- whatever turn out to be the killer apps. Wireless net-
casting stations, low-power FM radio stations, and works built using intelligent, dynamic techniques
the Web. If consolidation in the media distribution from the computer and networking industries will
business threatened the diversity of voices available feature radical flexibility. Network owners need not
to viewers and listeners, personal broadcast predict uses in order to shape their infrastructure
networks would provide a powerful antidote. build-out, because there will be no owners, infrastruc-
But the existing market for heavily produced, ture, or build-out in the current senses of the words.

Policy Recommendations

Governments should recognize and and, a novel method for noise floor base-
embrace the tremendous potential of lines called “interference temperature.”
the radio revolution. In the U.S., the Because radio signals do not respect
FCC’s November 2002 Spectrum Policy political boundaries, spectrum policy is
Task Force report45 acknowledged that inherently international. Equipment
technological changes allow for new vendors can better justify the investment
forms of spectrum access and interfer- needed to develop new products when
ence management. It therefore proposed they can foresee a global market.
expanded use of the commons model. In Hence, international harmonization of
June 2003, the Bush Administration spectrum bands is valuable, especially
formed a task force to examine govern- for unlicensed bands. Participants at the
ment spectrum use, with a similar 2003 World Radio Conference agreed
mandate to propose reforms. to expand the globally unlicensed spec-
The FCC has begun or announced trum in the 5 GHz range, adding 255
plans for a raft of spectrum reform pro- MHz to the existing allocation.
ceedings. These include: unlicensed Despite these encouraging develop-
sharing of the broadcast spectrum; ments, more needs to be done. Govern-
changes to allow unlicensed access to ments cannot merely sit back and wait
underused education spectrum in the 2.5 for technological development to elimi-
GHz band currently allocated for nate spectrum scarcity. Spectrum policies
Instructional Fixed Television Service around the world remain centered on
(ITFS); incentives for unlicensed deploy- what the FCC calls a “command-and-
ment in rural areas; investigating the control” model, more appropriate for the
impact of cognitive radio and the industrial era than for the coming age of
unlicensed allocation of extremely high digital networks. Though government
frequency spectrum (above 50 GHz); regulation of the radio spectrum was

Policy Recommendations

designed to manage and mitigate physical scarcity of tion for portable consumer electronic devices
the airwaves, that regulation now creates scarcity. such as PDAs. Contrary to the recommendation
As a general matter, the federal government of the FCC’s Spectrum Policy Task Force, new
should recognize that the objective of spectrum unlicensed allocations should not be limited to
policy is not to minimize interference, but to maxi- spectrum above 50 GHz. However, as much
mize usable capacity. It should move away from spectrum as possible at such extremely high
command-and-control toward more flexible frequencies should be made available for
approaches, recognizing that there is value in a unlicensed use with minimal restrictions.
diversity of legal regimes. In experimenting with
exclusive property rights and secondary markets, ❚ SHARED UNLICENSED UNDERLAY
it should balance the potential gains against the The FCC should advance its proceeding on unli-
opportunity cost of mak- censed sharing of broadcast and other licensed
“Increasing demand for ing that spectrum available spectrum bands. It should also make good on its
for unlicensed sharing in commitment to review its rules governing ultra-
spectrum-based services the future. Wireless wideband and low-power FM radio, both of which
devices will continue to are subject to significant restrictions. Interference
and devices are become increasingly with licensed services is a legitimate concern, but
sophisticated and inexpen- hypothetical fears unsupported by the evidence
straining longstanding, sive. Policy decisions should not trump innovation and competition.
should take into account The FCC should work with companies and
and outmoded, the possibility that what is standards bodies in the private sector to identify
impractical now may be other technical means for unlicensed sharing.
spectrum policies.” commonplace in the The interference temperature concept outlined
future...if there is room in the FCC Spectrum Policy Task Force report
— FCC SPECTRUM POLICY TASK FORCE for innovation. is promising but undeveloped. Identifying more
Specifically, policy ini- clearly the boundaries between high-power
tiatives should proceed in four areas: licensed and low-power unlicensed services in
the same bands would benefit both types of sys-
❚ MORE DEDICATED UNLICENSED SPECTRUM tems. However, the boundaries should not be so
The FCC and other government agencies low as to preclude viable unlicensed devices.
should continue their efforts to identify addi-
tional spectrum for unlicensed use. Some spec- ❚ OPPORTUNISTIC SHARING
trum may become available through return of The FCC should allow for spectrum sharing
analog broadcast television licenses as part of the along the other dimensions of the electrospace
digital TV transition,46 or from guard bands model. Depending on the nature of the licensed
established to protect obsolete devices. Other use, the government can make under-utilized
spectrum could be shifted from government or frequencies available for non-interfering shared
military use, or through restructuring of under- access by time, geographic area, direction of sig-
utilized bands such as the UHF television and nals, or other variables. By establishing guide-
MMDS/ITFS frequencies.47 lines for cognitive radios that can sense and
Unlicensed spectrum at low frequencies, respond to the local spectral environment, the
below 2 GHz, is particularly important. government could in effect create “virtual white-
Transmissions at those frequencies can more eas- space” within spectrum that is already licensed.
ily penetrate trees, walls, and other obstacles, a The Defense Advanced Research Agency’s
key consideration for last-mile broadband appli- (DARPA) XG sharing technology provides one
cations. They also use less power, and thus make model for doing this. The XG moniker stands
more efficient use of batteries, a key considera- for “neXt Generation.”

Radio Revolution

The FCC should pursue its proposal in the because the 2.4 GHz “junk band” spectrum was
Spectrum Policy Task Force report to examine so congested with devices such as microwave
standards for receivers. Existing rules focus ovens that it was considered unusable for
entirely on transmitters, but as discussed in this licensed systems. Because the band was unli-
paper, interference is a phenomenon that mani- censed and open to public access, engineers and
fests itself on the receiving end. Poorly defined companies interested in wireless local area
spectrum licenses create incentives to build the networking could use it for their commercially
cheapest, least robust receivers allowed. A poor- and technically unproven technologies.
quality receiver may not affect the service for The government should ensure that its rules
which it is licensed, but it will create scarcity by for unlicensed bands allow for the broadest pos-
limiting the space for opportunistic and shared sible experimentation. It should also ensure that
unlicensed devices around it. it provides ample opportunities for experimental
authorizations that go beyond the existing rules,
❚ EXPERIMENTATION AND RESEARCH so that innovators can develop novel techniques.
Because spectrum has long been highly regu- A large block of high frequency spectrum (above
lated and controlled by a small group of 50 GHz) that is currently unassigned could be
licensees, opportunities for experimentation have designated as an open space for completely
been limited. WiFi happened almost by accident, unregulated unlicensed activity, as Tim Shepard

A Universal Communications exploited fully so long as only certain wireless

Privilege for the “Supercommons” systems are legally permitted to operate.
An alternate approach would be to establish a
Any set of prophylactic rules for wireless communi- baseline universal privilege to communicate.48 Any-
cation, no matter how liberal, will prevent some one could engage in any form of wireless transmis-
potential transmissions. The current block allocation sion they chose, so long as they did not impinge on
system of government-licensed frequencies leaves other systems. Instead of prophylactic interference
huge quantities of spectrum fallow, even though rules enforced by the government, a liability regime
today’s devices could exploit the unused capacity could be used to avoid and resolve disputes. Those
with no harm to existing systems. Even with unli- suffering harm from other transmissions could sue for
censed allocations, underlays, and opportunistic damages in court, using principles drawn from the
sharing, some non-interfering transmissions will be common law doctrine of torts. Various safe-harbor
precluded inefficiently. The optimal arrangement of and backstop mechanisms could be used to ensure
wireless communications devices depends on loca- the system operated efficiently. Equipment vendors
tion, time, pre-existing systems, the desired service, and wireless device owners would have incentives to
and technological capabilities. No set of rules deter- use intelligent mechanisms to increase capacity.
mined ahead of time can possibly take all these The supercommons regime could operate alongside
factors into account. existing licensed and unlicensed frequencies. It would
The very idea of spectrum as a scarce resource expand communications capacity without threatening
divided into frequencies is becoming less and less current allocations. Access to the airwaves would
useful. As devices become smarter, the effective com- become a distributed, real-time decision rather than
munications space outside designated frequency the result of a government pre-approval process. Inno-
bands increases. This “supercommons” cannot be vation and investment would increase dramatically.

Policy Recommendations

and Yochai Benkler have proposed. This would “etiquettes” are useful to facilitate efficient
allow for real-world exploration of ideas that spectrum sharing among unlicensed devices,
may later migrate to lower frequencies where and if so, what those etiquettes should be; what
propagation characteristics are better. are the fundamental information theoretic
The government should also continue to limits of radio communications; and how do
support and publicize research on groundbreak- large numbers of unlicensed devices using dif-
ing wireless technology. Among the key ques- ferent transmission mechanisms perform in
tions for exploration are: whether technical the real world.


A powerful lesson from the history of reaching the point where that mental
communications and computing is that a construct does more harm than good.
few simple trends have extraordinary The real question now is not whether
effects over time. The shift from analog but when. There is absolutely no ques-
to digital networks, for example, is revo- tion that wireless devices will continue
lutionizing all forms of communication to become more powerful, and that
and media. That transition has been enterprising technologists will find new
going on for many years, and hasn’t yet ways to multiplex and interweave radio
finished. Similarly, growing intelligence signals. Whatever obstacles regulators
of computing devices at the edges of or incumbents throw up will ultimately
networks exerts a powerful force that is be routed around. The only immutable
magnified over time. barriers are physical, and though they
The paradoxical fact is that wireless undoubtedly exist, we are nowhere near
communications are both more mun- reaching them.
dane and more remarkable than we cur- Through errors of both omission and
rently believe. The mundane aspect is commission, however, governments can
that spectrum isn’t somehow special and delay and weaken the revolutionary
removed from the forces affecting other changes that could bring into being the
industries touched by the relentless scenarios described in the previous sec-
improvements in computing and data tion. If no more unlicensed spectrum is
networking. Spectrum isn’t a domain made available through dedicated open-
where normal market and technological access bands, low-power underlay, and
forces go out the window, replaced by opportunistic sharing, it will take that
iron scarcities. In fact, it’s not a place or much longer to overcome the scarcities
a thing at all. It’s a mental construct we that define the market today. Such delays
use to aid understanding. We are rapidly would have economic and social costs.


The last time a new networking and communi- unnecessary regulation, laid the groundwork for
cations paradigm took hold, it was called the Inter- the Internet to emerge as a powerful business and
net. There too, it was possible to discern signs and social force whose impacts are still being felt
possibilities years before the full commercial real- throughout the economy.
ization of the network. The U.S. government, The next Internet is before us. It is an Internet of
through both affirmative steps (such as protecting the air, in some ways even more powerful than the
nascent data services from domination by tele- Internet of wires. If we put aside our preconcep-
phone companies) and conscious rejection of tions and outmoded notions, we can make it real.

Radio Revolution

Baran, Paul, “Visions of the [sic] 21st Century Federal Communications Commission, “First Report and
Communications: Is the Shortage of Radio Spectrum for Order: Revision of Part 15 of the Commission’s Rules
Broadband Networks of the Future a Self Made Problem?” Regarding Ultra-Wideband Transmission Systems,” ET
Keynote Talk, 8th Annual Conference on Next Generation Docket 98-153 (April 22, 2002). (providing rules for ultra-
Networks (November 9, 1994). Available at http://www.eff. wideband operation)
cngn94.transcript (challenging the traditional conception of Fleishman, Glenn, “Take the Mesh-Networking Route: Mesh
spectrum scarcity) Networks Offer an Agile, Cost-Effective Alternative,”
InfoWorld, March 7, 2003. Available at http://www.infoworld.
Black, Jane, “The Magic of Wi-Fi,” BusinessWeek Online, March com/article/03/03/07/10mesh_1.html (describing mesh net-
18, 2003. working)

Benkler, Yochai, “Overcoming Agoraphobia: Building the Gartner Group, Wireless LAN Equipment: Worldwide, 2001-2007,
Commons of the Digitally Networked Environment,” [report], Gartner Group, (January 2003).
11 Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 287 (1998).
(describing the benefits of a spectrum commons) Gelsinger, Patrick, “Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi): Leaping Across
the Digital Divide,” Keynote Address to the United
Benkler, Yochai, “Some Economics of Wireless Communications,” Nations Information and Communication Technologies
16 Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 25 (2002). (analyz- Task Force (June 26, 2003). Available at
ing the economics of wireless systems under property rights pages/wificonf0603/speaker_presentations/W2i_Gelsinger_
and commons) Presentation.pdf

Carter, Kenneth R., Ahmed Lahjouji, and Neil McNeal, Gilder, George, “The New Rules of Wireless,” Forbes ASAP,
“Unlicensed & Unshackled: A Joint OSP-OET White March 29, 1993. (explaining the possibility for spectrum
Paper on Unlicensed Devices and their Regulatory Issues,” sharing without exclusive rights)
Federal Communications Commission, Office of Strategic
Policy, Working Paper Series No. 39 (May 2003). Available Gilder, George, “Auctioning the Airwaves,” Forbes ASAP,
at April 11, 1994.
DOC-234741A1.pdf (surveying unlicensed wireless systems
and the FCC’s policy towards them) Hazlett, Thomas W., “The Wireless Craze, the Unlimited
Bandwidth Myth, the Spectrum Auction Faux Pas, and the
Crawford, Sabrina, “Wireless Wheels: Police Now Using Punchline to Ronald Coase’s ‘Big Joke’: An Essay on
Internet to Solve Local Crime Cases,” The San Francisco Airwave Allocation Policy,” 14 Harvard Journal of Law and
Examiner, September 18, 2003. Technology 335 (2001). (attacking the commons position and
advocating exclusive property rights in spectrum)
Clarke, Arthur C., Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the
Limits of the Possible, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1962). In-Stat/MDR, It’s Cheap and It Works: Wi-Fi Brings Wireless
Networking to the Masses, [report], In-Stat/MDR,
The Economist, “Watch this Airspace,” The Economist, (December 2002).
Technology Quarterly, June 22, 2002. (describing four dis-
ruptive technologies that “could shake up the wireless Johnston, James H., and J.H. Snider, “Breaking the Chains:
world”) Unlicensed Spectrum as a Last-Mile Broadband Solution,”
New America Foundation, Spectrum Series Working Paper
Faulhaber, Gerald R., and David Farber, “Spectrum Management: #7 (June 2003). Available at
Property Rights, Markets, and the Commons,” AEI- index.cfm?pg=article&pubID=1250
Brookings Joint Center, Working Paper 02-12 (December
2002). Available at Keizer, Gregg, “Wireless LANs Set For Growth Spurt,”
~faulhabe/SPECTRUM_MANAGEMENTv51.pdf (argu- Information Week, March 27, 2003.
ing that commons and property rights can coexist through
“non-interfering easements”) Konston, Kalle, “In Pursuit of a Wireless Device Bill of Rights,”
Presentation to the September 18, 2002 Meeting of the
Federal Communications Commission, Spectrum Policy Task FCC’s Technical Advisory Council (TAC). Available at
Force Report, ET Docket No. 02-135 (November 15, 2002).
Available at Rights_Final.ppt
attachmatch/DOC-228542A1.pdf (proposing an overhaul
of spectrum regulation)


Lessig, Lawrence, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in Singer, Michael, “Analysts: Wi-Fi a ‘Positive Disruption’,”
a Connected World, (New York: Random House, 2001). 802.11 Planet, April 3, 2003.
(describing the benefits of an open wireless commons for
innovation) Snider, J.H., and Max Vilimpoc, “Reclaiming the ‘Vast
Wasteland’: Unlicensed Sharing of Broadcast Spectrum,”
Margie, Paul, “Efficiency, Predictability, and the Need for New America Foundation, Spectrum Series Issue Brief #12
an Improved Interference Standard at the FCC,” Paper (July 2003). Available at
Presented at the 31st Annual Telecommunications index.cfm?pg=article&pubID=1286 (proposing shared use
Policy Research Conference (TPRC), Arlington, VA of broadcast spectrum)
(September 2003).
Stone, Amey, “Wi-Fi: It’s Fast, It’s Here — and It Works,”
Matheson, Robert, “The Electrospace Model as a Tool for Business Week Online, April 3, 2002. (overview of the WiFi
Spectrum Management,” Paper Presented at the 6th market and its implications)
Annual International Symposium on Advanced Radio
Technologies (ISART), Boulder, CO (March 2003). Weinberger, David, “The Myth of Interference,” Salon, March
12, 2003. Available at
New America Foundation, et al., “Additional Spectrum for 2003/03/12/spectrum/print.html (explaining David
Unlicensed Devices Below 900 MHz and in the 3 GHz Reed’s ideas)
Band,” Comments to the Federal Communications
Commission Notice of Inquiry, ET Docket No. 02-380 Werbach, Kevin, “A Layered Model for Internet Policy,” 1
(April 17, 2003). Available at Colorado Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology
Download_Docs/pdfs/Pub_File_1212_1.pdf Law 37 (2002).

New America Foundation, et al., “Amendment of the Werbach, Kevin, “Open Spectrum: The Paradise of the
Commission’s Rules to Facilitate the Provision of Fixed Commons,” Release 1.0, November 2001. (summarizing the
and Mobile Broadband Access, Educational and Other commons position and its implications for the communica-
Advanced Services in the 2150-2162 and 2500-2690 tions industry)
MHz Bands,” Comments to the Federal Communications
Commission Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Werbach, Kevin, “Open Spectrum: The New Wireless
WT Docket No. 03-66 (September 10, 2003). Available at Paradigm,” New America Foundation, Spectrum Series Working Paper # 6 (October 2002). Available at
1001 (explaining the benefits of the spectrum commons
New America Foundation, and Shared Spectrum Company, approach)
“Dupont Circle Spectrum Utilization During Peak Hours,”
[report], New America Foundation (June 2003). Available at Werbach, Kevin, “Supercommons: Toward a Unified Theory of Wireless Communication,” 82 Texas Law Review
Doc_File_183_1.pdf (forthcoming March 2004). Draft available at
Noam, Eli, “Spectrum Auctions: Yesterday’s Heresy, Today’s
Orthodoxy, Tomorrow’s Anachronism: Taking the Next Woolley, Scott, “Dead Air,” Forbes, November 25, 2002.
Step to Open Spectrum Access,” 41 Journal of Law and (describing efforts to reform spectrum policy based on
Economics 765 (1998). (proposing an “open access” model technologies that allow spectrum sharing)
for wireless systems)

Reed, David, “Comments for FCC Spectrum Policy Task Community WiFi Directories
Force on Spectrum Policy,” Comments to the Federal
Communications Commission Spectrum Policy Task Force
Public Notice, ET Docket No. 02-135 (July 8, 2002).
(describing the technical changes making a spectrum com-
mons viable)

Shepard, Timothy, J., “Spectrum Policy Task Force Seeks

Public Comment on Issues Related to the Commission’s
Spectrum Policies,” Comments to the Federal
Communications Commission Spectrum Policy Task Force
Public Notice, ET Docket No. 02-135 (July 8, 2002).

Radio Revolution

1 11
Albert Einstein reportedly offered an entertaining description The seven layers, from bottom to top, are: physical, data
of radio with a similar “negative” character: “You see, wire link, network, transport, session, presentation, application.
telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail The OSI model is broadly used as a conceptual tool, but
in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do not always as a formal part of network design. In the
you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same 1980s, efforts to formally require adherence to the OSI
way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The standard failed.
only difference is that there is no cat.” 12
Separate from the technological critique developed here,
Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Lim- there is a long and distinguished history of economic argu-
its of the Possible (London: Victor Gollancz, 1962). ments against the current structure of spectrum regulation,
3 generally advocating private property rights as an alterna-
The word paradigm, since its popularization in Thomas
tive to government licensing. However, the spectrum-shar-
Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has become
ing techniques the new dynamic wireless paradigm makes
dull from over-use. A paradigm shift isn’t merely a new
possible remove the need for exclusive rights to minimize
technology or a new business opportunity. It’s a change in
interference. See Yochai Benkler, “Overcoming Agorapho-
cognitive framework. Our paradigms are the unconscious
bia: Building the Commons of the Digitally Networked
scaffolding we use to associate concepts and information.
Environment,” 11 Harvard Journal of Law and Technology
Most of the time they can safely operate in the background,
287 (1998).
but occasionally they break down. True paradigm shifts are
rare, but this rarity increases their significance. The FCC has oversight over private spectrum, and NTIA is
4 the lead agency for government spectrum. Several other
This analogy was first developed by Tim Shepard in his com-
agencies, including the Defense and State Departments,
ments to FCC’s Spectrum Policy Task Force. See Timothy
play significant roles in spectrum policy.
J. Shepard, “Spectrum Policy Task Force Seeks Public
Comment on Issues Related to the Commission’s Spectrum The process of deciding which frequencies shall be available
Policies,” Comments to the FCC’s Public Notice, ET for which uses is known as allocation. Determining who is
Docket No. 02-135 (July 8, 2002). entitled to use those frequencies is called assignment. In
5 many cases, spectrum bands are assigned to more than one
Capacity may not always be expressed in raw throughput such
user, or to one “primary” user and one or more “second-
as bits per second. Some services have particular require-
ary” users.
ments. For example, live voice communication needs low
latency (delay), while high-quality video broadcasting See Ronald H. Coase, “The Federal Communications Com-
requires limited packet loss. An environment that allows mission,” 2 Journal of Law and Economics 1 (1959).
these uses may be more valuable than one that does not, 16
This became an issue in the FCC proceeding authorizing
even if total carrying capacity is lower.
ultra-wideband devices to underlay under existing licensed
For a list of some other multiplexing mechanisms, see Robert services. Sprint PCS argued that, because it had spent bil-
Matheson, “The Electrospace Model as a Tool for Spec- lions of dollars purchasing spectrum licenses and building
trum Management,” Paper presented at ISART 2003 con- out its mobile phone network, it had an expectation of
ference, Boulder, CO, March 2003. exclusive control over the frequencies. The FCC rejected
7 this claim, holding that even for flexible PCS spectrum, the
This approach is known as Time Division Multiple Access
license was not absolute. A licensee may have a reasonable
(TDMA), and is the basis of the popular GSM standard for
expectation to operate free from harmful interference for
second-generation wireless phone systems.
the limited term of the license, but the government may
See New America Foundation and Shared Spectrum Com- give non-interfering users access to the same frequencies.
pany, “Dupont Circle Spectrum Utilization During Peak See “FCC First Report and Order: Revision of Part 15 of
Hours,” (July 2003) (finding a significant amount of spec- the Commission’s Rules Regarding Ultra-Wideband Trans-
trum is unused, even in dense urban areas during peak mission Systems,” ET Docket No. 98-153 (April 22, 2002).
hours). 17
There are two different patterns to prevent interference in
Transitioning from analog to digital is another means of nearby cities. There is no channel 3 in New York, but no
expanding capacity by changing the system design. Digital channel 2 in Philadelphia, to ensure the signals are received
“2G” mobile phone networks support more simultaneous properly.
calls than analog “1G” systems, and they can support addi- 18
In addition, because only a handful of big city markets have
tional features such as data transmission and messaging. Yet
more than 13 channels on the air, TV channels 30 to 69 (234
the 2G systems actually use less spectrum.
MHz of prime spectrum) are in use in only about 10 percent
The layered model also has important implications for regu- of the nation’s TV market, on average. See J.H. Snider and
lation. See Kevin Werbach, “A Layered Model for Internet Max Vilimpoc, “Reclaiming the ‘Vast Wasteland’: Unlicensed
Policy,” 1 Colorado Journal on Telecommunications and High Sharing of Broadcast Spectrum,” New America Foundation,
Technology Law 37 (2002). Spectrum Series Issue Brief #12 (July 2003).


19 33
For an excellent discussion of the FCC’s evolving regulation See Patrick Gelsinger, “Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi): Leaping
of interference, see Paul Margie, “Efficiency, Predictability, Across the Digital Divide,” Keynote Address to the United
and the Need for an Improved Interference Standard at the Nations Information and Communication Technologies
FCC,” Paper presented at TPRC 2003, Arlington, VA, Task Force (June 26, 2003).
September 2003. 34
See supra note 6.
Harmful interference is defined as “Interference which 35
See Kevin Werbach, “Supercommons: Toward a Unified
endangers the functioning of a radio navigation service or
Theory of Wireless Communication,”82 Texas Law Review
of other safety services or seriously degrades, obstructs or
___ (forthcoming March 2004), draft available at http://wer-
repeatedly interrupts a radio communication service operat-
ing in accordance with the Radio Regulations.” 48 CFR
§97.3(a)(23). See New America Foundation et al., “Additional Spectrum
21 for Unlicensed Devices Below 900 MHz and in the 3 GHz
See Matheson, supra note 6.
Band,” Comments to the FCC Notice of Inquiry, ET
See Kalle Konston, “In Pursuit of a Wireless Device Bill of Docket No. 02-380 (April 17, 2003).
Rights,” Presentation to the September 18, 2002 Meeting 37
See J.H. Snider and Max Vilimpoc, “Reclaiming the ‘Vast
of the FCC’s Technical Advisory Council (TAC).
Wasteland’: Unlicensed Sharing of Broadcast Spectrum,”
See “FCC First Report and Order: Revision of Part 15 of the New America Foundation, Spectrum Series Issue Brief #12
Commission’s Rules Regarding Ultra-Wideband Transmis- (July 2003).
sion Systems,” ET Docket No. 98-153 (April 22, 2002). 38
WiFi stands for “wireless fidelity” only in this marketing
UWB was previously used for non-communications appli-
sense. HiFi systems actually have higher sound fidelity;
cations such as ground-penetrating radar, especially by the
there is nothing special about the fidelity of WiFi systems.
24 See James H. Johnston and J.H. Snider, “Breaking the
Not to be confused with defunct digital subscriber line
Chains: Unlicensed Spectrum as a Last-Mile Broadband
provider Northpoint Communications. Because its
Solution,” New America Foundation, Spectrum Series
approach is so novel, Northpoint has had to endure a
Working Paper #7 (June 2003).
multi-year struggle to get its technology approved by
the FCC. Id.
25 41
In a pure mesh, every receiver is also a transmitter and a See
repeater. However, this is not a requirement. The Internet, 42
See Jane Black, “The Magic of Wi-Fi,” BusinessWeek Online,
for example, has many different kinds of routers and net-
(March 18, 2003).
works, some of which are connected hierarchically with
“edge” and “core” devices. See Gregg Keizer, “Wireless LANs Set For Growth Spurt,”
26 Information Week, (March 27, 2003).
See Sabrina Crawford, “Wireless Wheels: Police Now Using
Internet to Solve Local Crime Cases,” The San Francisco See James H. Johnston and J.H. Snider, “Breaking the
Examiner (September 18, 2003). Chains: Unlicensed Spectrum as a Last-Mile Broadband
27 Solution,” New America Foundation, Spectrum Series
Any digital wireless system involves some measure of soft-
Working Paper #7 (June 2003).
ware. SDR involves using software to control most of the
functions that traditionally were handled through RF hard- See Federal Communications Commission, Spectrum Policy
ware. Task Force Report, ET Docket No. 02-135 (November 15,
28 2002).
See George Gilder, “The New Rules of Wireless,” Forbes
ASAP (March 29, 1993). See also George Gilder, “Auction- See New America Foundation et al., “Additional Spectrum
ing the Airwaves,” Forbes ASAP (April 11, 1994). for Unlicensed Devices Below 900 MHz and in the 3GHz
29 Band,” Comments to the FCC Notice of Inquiry, ET
See Kevin Werbach, “Open Spectrum: The New Wireless
Docket No. 02-380 (April 17, 2003).
Paradigm,” New America Foundation, Spectrum Series
Working Paper #6 (October 2002). See also Kevin Wer- See New America Foundation et al., “Amendment of the
bach, “Open Spectrum: The Paradise of the Commons,” Commission’s Rules to Facilitate the Provision of Fixed and
Release 1.0, (November 2001). Mobile Broadband Access, Educational and Other
30 Advanced Services in the 2150-2162 and 2500-2690 MHz
See Yochai Benkler, “Some Economics of Wireless Commu-
Bands,” Comments to the FCC Notice of Proposed Rule-
nications,” 16 Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 25
making, WT Docket No. 03-66 (September 10, 2003).
31 See Werbach, supra note 35.
See Michael Singer, “Analysts: Wi-Fi a ‘Positive Disrup-
tion,’” 802.11 Planet, (April 3, 2003).
See It’s Cheap and It Works: Wi-Fi Brings Wireless Networking
to the Masses, [report] In-Stat/MDR (December 2002). See
also Wireless LAN Equipment: Worldwide, 2001-2007,
[report] Gartner Group (January 2003).