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Wireless Commons Part 2: The Possibilities of an Open, Unlicensed Spectrum

In the first part of this series, we discussed how spectrum could be better managed to allow far greater communications capacity, but only if the FCC abandoned its traditional approach of auctioning spectrum to carriers for monopolistic use. In this part, we’ll discuss how devices could take advantage of a new approach to spectrum management and how it might help to circumvent gatekeepers, whether corporate or government.

With increased unlicensed use of the spectrum, an astonishing range of possibilities emerges. Mobile devices could communicate with each other directly, without reference to a central node controlled by a telecom company or monitored by a government. Access points could be strung together wirelessly to create decentralized ad hoc networks, with each device forwarding data from every other, creating a seamless network throughout an entire neighborhood or city. Commotion Wireless is already attempting this on a small scale with just the existing spectrum.

Such networks already exist in a few places, but access to more unlicensed spectrum and permission to use stronger signals would allow them to grow, potentially creating a more decentralized and democratic way to share information and access the internet; an end-run around data caps, future “fast lane” policies, and other drawbacks of relying on one or two telecom oligopolists as a network owner and gatekeeper.

Another exciting possibility for unlicensed spectrum use can be found in emerging Ultra-Wide Band technologies. These allow devices to use a large swath of spectrum at very low power to send information in bits and pieces over short distances, somewhat similar to bitTorrents, and could allow for nearly instantaneous exchange of gigabits of data. All of this is dependent, however, on access to spectrum with the right characteristics, such as low frequency TV bands that can penetrate physical obstacles like walls or trees especially well.

These technologies have political ramifications as well. Rather than having to make monthly payments to a national provider as you do with your cell phone, we would have different models to choose from. Some would be just a matter of buying the right device, just as we already do with computers. Imagine setting up a neighborhood-wide network just as easily as setting up a home Wi-Fi network.

These possibilities are made both more enticing and more urgent by the huge growth in the demand for mobile data worldwide. The near ubiquitous status of increasingly high tech mobile devices, combined with the increased use of smart meters and other remotely controlled devices for homes and businesses, as well as the general growth in the size of audio, video, and other files all drive this trend.

Mobile connections grew from 1% to 13% of total Internet traffic from 2009 to 2012, and Qualcomm expects mobile data usage to grow by a factor of 1,000 from 2012 to 2020. With these demands, it is increasingly important to find new ways to use the spectrum that are not mutually exclusive. In this environment, the allocation of exclusive broadcasting licenses for the vast majority of the spectrum to incumbents who use those rights inefficiently makes little sense.

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The FCC has some choices to make about how it will meet these challenges. It could simply clear underused spectrum, chop it up, and auction it again for new one-time revenue. Clearing space on the spectrum through reallocation is expensive and time consuming, however, involving complex legal and technical maneuvering.

What if rather than having Wi-Fi, the U.S. Treasury had a few extra billion dollars by auctioning that space on the spectrum to a monopoly provider rather than creating a commons? These are the real trade-offs currently being weighed and you better believe that the big wireless companies and their allies in Congress are working hard to prevent any major changes to the system they rule.

There are smarter approaches. The FCC could create a framework for sharing licensed spectrum, retaining priority use for original license holders while also forcing them to allow intelligent devices that sense and make use of available frequencies to operate within their licensed space. Or they could clear more space to be used for unlicensed communications, currently restricted to a few tiny portions of the spectrum. More unlicensed space is the most likely approach to foster significant development of new wireless technologies, which are difficult or impossible to deploy while telecom companies control so much of the airwaves.

All of this is unlikely to happen in the current regulatory regime. Telecom companies have shelled out billions for exclusive licenses and made large investments in technologies that work within the current business model of spectrum ownership. They also covet the foreclosure value that their ownership provides, meaning the ability to shut out competitors by denying them spectrum. As a result, a few massive telecom corporations have little to gain by democratizing access to spectrum bandwidth.

National elected officials, most of whom are not known for their technological savvy, must weigh the temptation of quick money ($20 billion from one auction in 2008 alone) in new license auctions with the difficult to conceptualize but potentially massive economic and social benefits of a more open spectrum. Unless they feel pressure from ordinary citizens who stand to benefit from greater spectrum freedom, the status quo of expensive, centralized communications and suppression of innovation is unlikely to change.

Spectrum graphic courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Wireless Commons Part 1: Interference Is a Myth, but the FCC Hasn't Caught on Yet

This is the first in two-part series on spectrum basics and how we could better manage the spectrum to encourage innovation and prevent either large corporations or government from interfering with our right to communicate. Part 2 is available here.

We often think of all our wireless communications as traveling separate on paths: television, radio, Wi-Fi, cell phone calls, etc. In fact, these signals are all part of the same continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Different parts of the spectrum have different properties, to be sure - you can see visible light, but not radio waves. But these differences are more a question of degree than a fundamental difference in makeup. 

As radio, TV, and other technologies were developed and popularized throughout the 20th century, interference became a major concern. Any two signals using the same band of the spectrum in the same broadcast range would prevent both from being received, which you have likely experienced on your car radio when driving between stations on close frequencies – news and music vying with each other, both alternating with static. 

To mitigate the problem, the federal government did what any Econ 101 textbook says you should when you have a “tragedy of the commons” situation in which more people using a resource degrades it for everyone: they assigned property rights. This is why radio stations tend not to interfere with each other now.

The Federal Communications Commission granted exclusive licenses to the spectrum in slices known as bands to radio, TV, and eventually telecom companies, ensuring that they were the only ones with the legal right to broadcast on a given frequency range within a certain geographic area. Large bands were reserved for military use as well.

Originally, these licenses came free of charge, on the condition that broadcasters meet certain public interest requirements. Beginning in 1993, the government began to run an auction process, allowing companies to bid on spectrum licenses. That practice continues today whenever any space on the spectrum is freed up. (For a more complete explanation of the evolution of licensing see this excellent Benton foundation blog post.)

Although there have been several redistributions over the decades, the basic architecture remains. Communications companies own exclusive licenses for large swaths of the usable spectrum, with most other useful sections reserved for the federal government’s defense and communications purposes (e.g. aviation and maritime navigation). Only a few tiny bands are left open as free, unlicensed territory that anyone can use. 

NTIA Spectrum Map

This small unlicensed area is where many of the most innovative technologies of the last several decades have sprung up, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and even garage door openers and cordless phones. A recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association concluded that unlicensed spectrum generates $62 billion in economic activity, and that only takes into account a portion of direct retail sales of devices using the unlicensed spectrum. 

On its face, the current spectrum allocation regime appears an obvious solution; an efficient allocation of scarce resources that allows us to consume all kinds of media with minimal interference or confusion, and even raises auction revenues for the government to boot. 

Except that the spectrum is not actually a limited resource. Thanks to the constant evolution of broadcasting and receiving technologies, the idea of a finite spectrum has become obsolete, and with it the rationale for the FCC’s exclusive licensing framework. This topic was explored over a decade ago in a Salon article by David Weinberger, in which he interviews David P. Reed, a former MIT Computer Science Professor and early Internet theorist. 

Reed describes the fallacy of thinking of interference as something inherent in the signals themselves. Signals travelling on similar frequencies do not physically bump into each other in the air, scrambling the message sent. The signals simply pass through each other, meaning multiple signals can actually be overlaid on each other. (You don’t have to understand why this happens, just know that it does.) Bob Frankston belittles the current exclusive licensing regime as giving monopolies on colors. 

As Weinberger puts it:

The problem isn’t with the radio waves. It’s with the receivers: “Interference cannot be defined as a meaningful concept until a receiver tries to separate the signal. It’s the processing that gets confused, and the confusion is highly specific to the particular detector,” Reed says. Interference isn’t a fact of nature. It’s an artifact of particular technologies.

In the past, our relatively primitive hardware-based technologies, such as car radios, could only differentiate signals that were physically separated by vacant spectrum. But with advances in both transmitters and receivers that have increased sensitivity, as well as software that can quickly and seamlessly sense what frequencies are available and make use of them, we can effectively expand the usable range of the spectrum. This approach allows for squeezing more and more communication capacity into any given band as technology advances, without sacrificing the clarity of existing signals. In other words, (specifically those of Kevin Werbach and Aalok Mehta in a recent International Journal of Communications paper) “The effective capacity of the spectrum is a constantly moving target.”

In the next post, we’ll look at how we can take advantage of current and future breakthroughs in wireless technology, and how our outdated approach to spectrum management is limiting important innovation.

New York Media's MetroFocus Talks With Chris About City Wi-Fi

In an effort to bring better connectivity to New Yorkers, the City is transforming old pay phones into free Wi-Fi hotspots. Rick Karr, reporter for MetroFocus from New York Public Media, reached out to ILSR's Chris Mitchell to discuss the project.

Chris and Karr discuss the challenges faced by lower income people in our digital age, many of whom depend on mobile devices for Internet access. From the video:

“Low income people and especially minority populations really depend on mobile devices. So having WiFi that they can use when they’re on the go is going to be a good way of keeping their costs down. But you’re not going to see kids writing term papers on mobile devices,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said that low-income people need better and more affordable options. “Possibly, something run by the city so that it can ensure that low-income people have access in their homes and they don’t have to go outside in order to use their devices.”

According to the New York City Information Technology & Telecommunications website, over 20 locations already offer free municipal Wi-Fi. The City intends to expand the current program and has called for proposals from potential private partners due by the end of June.

Mayor de Blasio has stated that his administration will make free Wi-Fi a priority in order to help reduce the City's income inequality. Maya Wiley, de Blasio's chief counsel told the New York Daily News:

“High-speed Internet access is now as fundamental as water, as fundamental as the railroads were in the 18th century,” Wiley said in an interview with the Daily News.

“If you are low-income and you want to find a job, increasingly, you need high-speed broadband to do it,” Wiley said.

 

Municipal Networks and the Future of Wi-Fi Hotspots

This is a guest post from Jacob Levin - an advocate for a new economy that regenerates people, place and planet. Growing up as the son of an FCC official, dinner conversations often drifted towards tales of how incumbent ISPs were unfairly leveraging their political and economic power to reduce competition. He's done policy research for Public Knowledge, One Economy Corporation and Skype, and has worked on research and development for Republic Wireless.

This work has led him to believe that community control of communications infrastructure is the only way to protect freedom of expression in a digital age. He's an aspiring peasant, and an active member of the Open Masters project, dedicated to creating effective learning communities for people pursuing learning goals outside of traditional education institutions.

This is not your parents’ Wi-Fi. The latest generation of Wi-Fi networks are not only faster and more reliable, they come with some backend changes that community networks can take advantage of. In particular, something called Hotspot 2.0 will allow authorized devices to seamlessly connect to secure Wi-Fi networks, much like mobile phones already do on cellular networks.

Hotspot 2.0 is a new initiative of the Wi-Fi alliance that will bring cellular-like roaming experiences onto Wi-Fi networks. As access points begin to support the Hotspot 2.0 standard, mobile devices will be able to automatically select appropriate Wi-Fi networks and provide stored credentials. No more manually searching through available networks and punching in passwords. The cable industry is betting heavily on Hotspot 2.0, with plans to provide credentials to cable subscribers that will allow them to roam onto any CableWi-Fi access point (including the routers they provide to their customers homes). This could allow cable companies to include mobile phone service in their bundles.

Any community fiber network can begin offering paid wireless service, or bundle wireless service in with existing internet, TV and phone service (like Cable is doing). They can put wireless nodes on top of telephone poles and/or ask wired subscribers to use routers that are pre-set to recognize municipal credentials.

But for those who don’t want to build or maintain a wireless network, Hotspot 2.0 will allow a wired network to offer a credential to its subscribers and establish roaming agreements with those operating wireless networks. For example, multiple communities with their own networks can allow free roaming across partner networks.

If the networks are comparable and there is a roughly similar mix of roaming, they may do it without charging each other. However, a metro center may ask a suburban county to pay in order to recognize the suburbs’ municipal credential, as generally, suburban residents spend more time in municipal areas than vice versa.

A community could create a program that ensured historically marginalized populations and those living in low income areas had a credential that would be honored by local businesses - to create more options for connectivity. Such a program would surely not be sufficient to provide optimal access but would be an improvement over the status quo.

The stunning success of Wi-Fi is leading to a problem in many communities. The more Wi-Fi operating on the same chunk of spectrum leads to inefficiency. But with HotSpot 2.0 and some coordination, neighborhoods could have better performance with fewer networks. FCC rules don’t allow anyone to forcible shut down a Wi-Fi router but a community network could reward those who cooperate with access to fiber backhaul, poles, etc., on favorable terms.

Here are some suggested preparations for the coming HotSpot 2.0 technology. Near-term actions:

  • Ensure new equipment has Hotspot 2.0 capabilities
  • Take inventory of private wireless networks in commonly trafficked areas

Medium-term actions:

  • Develop community network credentials
  • Approach local wireless providers about recognizing community network credentials
  • Create roaming agreements with other networks

Long-term actions:

  • Create credential to address digital divide issues
  • Take precautions to prevent tragedy of the commons

Open Technology Institute Report Offers Overview of Public Broadband Options

Publication Date: 
May 6, 2014
Author(s): 
Ben Lennett, Open Technology Institute
Author(s): 
Patrick Lucey, Open Technology Institute
Author(s): 
Joanne Hovis, CTC Technology and Energy

The Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, along with ctc Technology and Energy, have released an overview of options for local governments that want to improve Internet access. The report is titled, "The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options."

The paper has been released at an opportune time, more communities are now considering what investments they can make at the local level than ever. The Art of the Possible offers different models, from muni ownership and partnerships to coops. The paper examines different business models and assesses the risk of various approaches.

It also includes a technical section for the non-technical to explain the differences between different types of broadband technology.

From the introduction:

The one thing communities cannot do is sit on the sidelines. Even the process of evaluating whether a public network is appropriate can be beneficial to community leaders as a means to better understand the communications needs of their residents, businesses, and institutions and whether existing services and networks are keeping pace.

The purpose of this report is to enable communities to begin the evaluation of their broadband options. The report begins with an overview of different network ownership and governance models, followed by an overview of broadband technologies to help potential stakeholders understand the advantages and disadvantages of each technology. It then provides a brief summary of several different business models for publicly owned networks. The final two chapters focus on the potential larger local benefits and the risks of a publicly funded broadband project.

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?

GovTech Covers Famous Free Wi-Fi in Oklahoma

Ponca City's free Wi-Fi has attracted attention over the years. A recent article in Government Technology focuses on the free Wi-Fi service and reveals the secret behind Ponca City's jewel - their municipal fiber network. 

From the article:

So what makes Ponca City’s wireless network a long-term success, and what suggestions do city officials have for other areas that want to replicate it?

It all starts with fiber, said Technology Services Director Craige Baird and City Manager Craig Stephenson. But fiber’s price tag stops many local governments in their tracks, especially when they want to do it in a year instead of building a network out slowly over a number of years.

As we reported earlier this year, Pona City's wireless is supported and funded by its fiber network. The community began the incremental installation in 1997, adding more each year; the network is now over 350 miles long. Revenue from commercial customers supply the funds for the wireless mesh network.

Residents can use the basic service for free and a modest investment optimizes their access:

While the network can be accessed by wireless-enabled devices throughout the city, residents can install a Wi-Fi modem in their house to receive a stronger signal indoors. The optional modem, called a Pepwave, costs about $150 and comes set up to connect to the free public network. The city got local computer stores to stock and support the devices, and in so doing, helped those businesses.

The service has also had wider reaching benefits:

During the recent recession, the $30 to $70 per month residents had previously paid to commercial Internet service providers stayed in Ponca City, helping “churn the economy,” Stephenson said.

In addition, Stephenson and Baird cited the network as a huge benefit to the schools and career technology center to help train and keep students in the area for economic development. Eighth-graders up through high school have electronic textbooks, laptops or notebooks, said Stephenson, “and that was only possible because everyone inside the city limits has Internet access.”

Understanding the Georgia Communications Cooperative - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #92

While at the SEATOA Conference in Raleigh last week, I met Mike Foor, the President and CEO of the Georgia Communications Cooperative (GCC). Given the important role GCC is playing in expanding great Internet access in rural Georgia, we wanted to interview him for Community Broadband Bits.

Back in episode 46, we spoke with Paul Belk about the North Georgia Network (NGN). This week we learn more about how cooperatives have worked together to form the GCC and help the NGN to expand.

Mike and I also discuss what it will take to connect rural homes, businesses, and anchor institutions with fiber optics - the real challenges and the imagined ones.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Richmond Neighborhood Gets Free Wi-Fi in California

Residents in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond are now receiving free Wi-Fi as part of a new pilot program. The pilot, sponsored by Building Blocks for Kids (BBK), hopes to make Internet access widely available to the many local families who cannot afford it. New towers have been placed on local homes to extend access to approximately 400 houses.

BBK is a collaborative of 30 government agencies, nonprofit groups and community leaders. The pilot project is funded by a $500,000 grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund to address digital literacy in areas of Richmond where affordable Internet access is not readily available.

A recent Contra Cost Times article covered the story. According to the article, an Internet connection tower is mounted on local resident, Yolanda Lopez's roof:

The Internet tower installed on Lopez's house receives signals from Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that has a 40-foot tower at 2512 Florida Ave. Lopez's transmitter sends free Internet signals for a radius of a few hundred yards, providing the web to dozens of neighbors, said Internet Archive engineer Ralf Muehlen.

The ongoing costs to provide the signal, now that the hardware is in place, is "negligible," Muehlen said.

By summer, BBK partners hope to outfit 20 houses in the Iron Triangle with signal towers, providing free high-speed Internet signals to more than 400 homes, said BBK Executive Director Jennifer Lyle. A second tower has already been installed at a home in Atchison Village, Lyle said.

The BBK press release notes that several public and private entities worked together to enhance the Wi-fi service:

Because of the technical skills of collaborative member ReliaTech and the IT infrastructure expertise of City of Richmond’s Department of Information Technology, low-income Richmond residents will have access to wi-fi at an impressive 12-16 megabits per second.

The neighborhood of just under 20,000 has had problems with high rates of crime for many years. A 2013 survey reflects that residents of the neighborhood are not embracing connectivity because it is too expensive for them. The results of the survey are part of a larger study from BBK examining home Internet access and usage in the Iron Triangle neighborhood. The study indicates that one-third of local residents do not have access at home and 40% do not own a working computer.

The grant has also allowed BBK to distribute 1,000 free refurbished computers and provide training to over 900 families.

Lopez told the Times:

"All my neighbors are coming up and thanking me for the free Internet," Lopez said in Spanish. "A lot of people can't pay $50 per month."

Save the White Spaces! From Public Knowledge

The FCC is now contemplating how much newly freed spectrum to retain for public use and how much to auction off to private companies for their exclusive use. Public Knowledge is leading the effort to ensure we retain enough shared spectrum to unleash more innovation and public benefits rather than simply padding the profits of a few massive firms that already control plenty of it.

In addition to the Gigabit Libraries Network's White Spaces Pilot Project, we have shared white space technology stories from North Carolina and New York

Public Knowledge recently created a video on the prevalence of spectrum in our lives, included below. Most of us take for granted the fact that shared (or unlicensed) spectrum permeates our culture. 

Instead of sitting by while the resource is auctioned off to the highest bidder, Public Knowledge has also created a petition to retain the spectrum needed for white space technology to spur more innovation. From the petition:

One of the most promising new technologies uses the empty spaces between television channels, the so-called "TV white spaces" (TVWS). The United States currently leads the world in this new technology. In the few short years since the FCC approved use of the TVWS, companies have built and shipped equipment to bring needed broadband to rural communities, creating jobs and expanding opportunities.

...

We call on the FCC to set aside 4 reclaimed TV channels, or 24 MHz, for TV white spaces. This will still leave the FCC more than enough to auction to wireless companies for their commercial needs. By reserving 24 MHz of "unlicensed" spectrum across the country for TV white spaces, the FCC will encourage further innovation in wireless services and foster the growth of next generation WiFi contributing billions of dollars in new products and consumer savings.

Video: 
See video