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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.

Senators and Representatives Back FCC Move to Restore Local Authority

Citing the importance of Internet access to economic development, a number of Congressional Democrats are calling on FCC Chairman Wheeler to make good on his intention to remove barriers to community owned networks. Senator Edward Markey is the lead from the Senate and Representative Doyle in the House. And this Minnesotan takes pride in seeing both Senators Franken and Klobuchar signed on.

The letter [pdf] makes a strong case for local decision-making:

[L]ocal communities should have the opportunity to decide for themselves how to invest in their own infrastructure, including the options of working with willing incumbent carriers, creating incentives for private sector development, entering into creative public-private partnerships, or even building their own networks, if necessary or appropriate.

...

Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Signing the letter included Senators Edward Markey, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, and Cory Booker as well as Representatives Mike Doyle, Henry Waxman, and Anna Eshoo. We thank each of them for standing up for local authority.

Yesterday, we gave a brief update of what has happened thus far on this issue. This is a very important moment, as so many communities have recognized that at the very minimum, they need a plan for getting next-generation networks.

Cable and DSL simply aren't good enough to compete in the modern economy but the big carriers have enough clout in state capitals to push laws limiting competition and enough power in DC to feel confident in their anti-consumer mergers. Given this dynamic, communities are smart to examine whether local investments will reduce their dependency on distant carriers with different interests - but they cannot do that where state law restricts local authority.

Given that the letter asks Chairman Wheeler to respond with a plan for restoring local authority, we should soon learn what the next steps will be in our efforts to ensure communities have all options on the table for improving Internet access to their businesses and residents.

U.S. Conference of Mayors Passes Resolution to End State Barriers

On June 22, Mayors from around the country gathered at the U.S. Conference of Mayors 82nd Annual Meeting. Members of the Standing Committee on Transportation and Communications voted to combine Resolution #115 "Net Neutrality" and #114 "Preserving a Free and Open Internet."

Resolution #115 was of particular interest to community broadband advocates because it called on the FCC to preempt state laws erecting barriers to local authority.

The final product, officially approved by the USCM, retained the language supporting Chairman Wheeler's intention to help smooth the road for publicly owned networks:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Resolution #115 was introduced by Mayor Paul Slogin of Madison, Wisconsin.

Update: Restoring Local Authority to Build Community Networks

It has been a busy few weeks for those of focused on restoring local authority to communities over the matter of building Internet networks. But for those of you who are just wondering what is happening, we haven't done the best job of keeping you in the loop.

A few weeks ago, we noted the blog post by Chairman Wheeler in which he again affirmed his intent to restore local decision-making authority to communities.

Some are wondering if Chairman Wheeler will take action or is just making empty threats. After years of the previous FCC Chair specializing in all talk, no action, it is a good question to ask.

From the information I have been able to gather, I believe Chairman Wheeler is very serious about removing these barriers. And so do the big cable and telephone company lobbyists. They have been spreading their falsehoods in op-eds and convincing a few Congressional Republicans to attack a straw man they created.

Eleven Senators signed a letter to Chairman Wheeler on June 5, in which they claimed he was poised to "force taxpayer funded competition against private broadband providers." This is nonsense on multiple levels. As we have carefully explained in our fact sheet on financing municipal networks [pdf], the vast majority of municipal networks have used zero taxpayer dollars. This argument is simply a dodge to hide the fact that the big cable and telephone companies want to prevent any possibility of competition.

On June 12, some sixty Republicans signed a similarly misleading letter to the Chairman. What is particularly galling about both letters is that they justify their opposition to any FCC action because the states are closer to the people than "unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C."

Can you hazard a guess who is closer to the people and more trusted than elected officials in the state capital? A big gold star to anyone who answered "local governments." That's right, the very people who should be deciding this matter and the elected officials that Chairman Wheeler wants to re-empower to make important decisions for their community!

Both letters are framed that the Chairman is forcing local governments to go into competition with the existing industry. He is proposing to ensure only that the state cannot block local governments from making that choice merely because the cable and telehpone companies spend millions of dollars lobbying the legislature with no countervailing force.

And it is worth noting that some states, including North Carolina at the behest of Time Warner Cable, have not only prevented local governments from building their own networks but also effectively banned communities from investing in infrastructure that third parties could use to compete with the big carriers.

Fortunately, this false framing from the industry is not the only recent development. We have seen the formation of CLIC - the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, which you should be a member of.

We have seen letters from local ISPs and Mayors (some of which will soon be posted here) to Chairman Wheeler explaining the importance of encouraging investment in next-generation networks. This from Mayor Bruce Rose of Wilson, North Carolina.

This approach has also produced strong enduring results. The City of Wilson’s credit rating was upgraded by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s in late 2008, shortly after the Greenlight service launched. I am proud to note that Moody’s recently maintained our Aa2/A1 bond rating after 6 years of operating this broadband network, in a report which emphasized the highly responsible nature of our city’s implementation of this Gigabit network, and its projected long term stability.

The upshot is that we have an FCC Chair who wants to restore local authority but an industry that is going to respond to any effort along those lines with lies and smears. Nothing we aren't used to, but we need to get organized. Join CLIC, pass resolutions, and write letters.

KGNU From Boulder Interviews Chris for Independent Colorado Radio

KGNU from Boulder recently interviewed Chris on It's the Economy. This 27 minute interview is a crash course in all the intertwined topics that have the telecom policy crowd buzzing.

Host Gavin Dahl asked Chris about SB 152, the 2005 Colorado statute that constricted local authority and has prevented communities in that state from investing in telecommunications infrastructure. As many of our readers know, the Colorado communities of Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial, have held elections to reclaim that authority under that statute's exepmtion. The two also discussed legislative activities in Kansas and Utah inspired by big cable and telecommunications lobbyists. 

The conversation also delved into gigabit networks, network neutrality, the Comcast/Time Warner mergers, legislative influence, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's recent statement about local authority.

In short, this interview packs a tall amount of information into a short amount of time - highly recommended! 

You could also read a transcript of the interview here.

APPA Adopts Policy Resolution Supporting Municipal Broadband Services

As the FCC considers its next move in the question of local telecommunications authority, a growing number of organizations are expressing their official support. The American Public Power Association (APPA) recently passed a resolution supporting the doctrine that local communities should not be precluded by states from investing in telecommunications infrastructure.

The APPA official resolution, approved by members on June 17, urges Congress, the FCC, and the Obama Administration to officially support the ability for public power utilities to provide advanced communications services. The resolution states:

That Congress should state in clear and unequivocal language that it supports the ability of local governments, including public power utilities, to provide advanced communications services that meet essential community needs and promote economic development and regional and global competitiveness. 

You can read the entire resolution, calling for updates to the Telecomunications Act of 1996, at the APPA website.

Local Leaders to Vote on State Preemption Resolution at U.S. Conference of Mayors

The 82nd Annual Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM) will be voting on resolutions this weekend in Dallas. It's time for you to call your Mayor and tell him or her to support Resolution #115 on Network Neutrality and restoring local authority on Internet infrastructure. 

The Resolution (page 293 of the Resolutions list) recommends that the FCC pre-empt state laws that preempt local authority over local investments and partnerships to expand Internet access. The net effect is to restore local authority. The Resolution also recommends the agency reclassify broadband Internet service as Telecommunications Service under Title II.

This is a perfect opportunity for local community leaders to express their constituents' demand for authority to control their broadband destiny.

The Mayor of Madison, Paul Soglin, introduced Resolution #115. Is your Mayor attending the conference?

Act now - the conference ends June 23!

A Short CLIC Background - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 103

This week, Lisa and I discuss the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, CLIC, that was announced last week. This is a short episode that aims to answer some of the common questions about CLIC, including why we felt it was necessary to create this coalition now.

You can still sign up to become a member of CLIC if you agree with our statement of principles that these important decisions should be made by communities, not preempted by states.

We are compiling a long list of those that support local authority - businesses, trade groups, utilities, community organizations, local governments, and more!

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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 8 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Verizon Engaged in IP Transition With No Rules: Where is the FCC?

Public Knowledge, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), and a long list of other public interest groups, recently filed a letter with the FCC urging the agency to launch an investigation. Specifically, the alliance asks the FCC to look into reports that Verizon is forcing customers to move from copper lines to fiber IP-based service. From the letter:

The Commission must begin investigating this issue quickly, lest inaction send carriers the message that abandoning customers in violation of their legal obligations is acceptable. Delay will only lead to carriers hanging up on more customers at a time when basic communications service is more important than ever.

In California, New York, New Jersey, and DC, large corporate carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, and Frontier are not maintaining traditional copper lines. Public Knowledge and TURN note in their letter that in Maryland, the state's Office of the People's Counsel found that "Verizon routinely migrates customers from the copper network to unregulated services with inadequate procedures for customer notice and consent."

We noted last summer that Verizon faced criticism for transitioning residents in the Catskills and in New York City to VoiceLink without disclosing the full limitations of the service. This was the tip of the iceberg. Verizon has failed to repair copper lines when requested. People in some areas of New York City have been told they must upgrade to FiOS in order to get phone service. There are even some customers who have been told they cannot order stand alone telephone service.

Because IP-based services are not yet regulated, carriers will not be obliged to provide services to everyone or to maintain communications infrastructure as they must with copper lines. 

The full text of the letter [PDF] and exhibits [PDF] provide details on Verizon's purposeful neglect of existing copper lines, customer service tactics to push customers on to IP services, and more about the company's nation-wide strategy. From the letter:

The problems that have garnered public attention so far are geographically widespread, and the Commission must take seriously the likelihood that these problems are occurring in many more states, leaving an unknown number of people with substandard basic communications service. This state of affairs is unacceptable. The Commission must now assert its leadership in this area, work with states where consumers are being denied adequate basic service, investigate places where customers are losing reliable basic voice service, and ensure that our country is living up to its commitment to provide basic communications service to everyone.

TURN wants Verizon customers to contact them, if they have experienced similar problems with the provider.

FCC Chairman Wheeler on Chattanooga and Expansion Ban

Removing restrictions on community broadband can expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, spurring economic growth and improvements in government services, while enhancing competition. Giving the citizens of Chattanooga and leaders like Mayor Berke the power to make these decisions for themselves is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.