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Muni Fiber as Real Estate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 111

Hunter Newby is back for his second appearance on Community Broadband Bits to discuss his thoughts on carrier neutral approaches to spur our economy with more investment in better networks. We just talked with Hunter in episode 104 on carrier neutral approaches to middle mile networks.

Now we discuss these types of approaches within communities - how to spur more competition without the owner of the infrastructure actually offering services directly. This has been a challenge historically, but we continue to see signs that this approach can be viable in the future.

Hunter Newby is the CEO and founder of Allied Fiber.

Read the transcript for episode 111 here, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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

Understanding the Wilson and Chattanooga FCC Petitions - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 110

Given the exciting development of the FCC opening comment on petitions from Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN to restore local authority to their states, Lisa and I decided to take over this week's podcast of Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about the petitions, some background, and interview Will Aycock from Wilson's Greenlight Gigabit Network and Danna Bailey from Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network.

We finish with some instructions on how you can comment on the record. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice also has commenting instructions and some sample comments.

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 22 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."

Rural Utilities Building Broadband Networks - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 109

If you have doubts that we can or will connect rural America with high quality Internet connections, listen to our show today. Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts, the Industry Affairs Manager at the Utilities Telecom Council, joins me to talk about how utilities are investing in the Internet connections that their communities need.

Many of these utilities are providing great connections, meaning that some of the folks living in rural America have better -- faster and more affordable -- Internet access than residents of San Francisco and New York City.

We discuss the demand for better Internet access and the incredible take rates resulting from investment in some of the communities that rural electric cooperatives are serving.

UTC has a been a strong ally of our efforts to prevent states from revoking local authority to build community networks. Within UTC, the Rural Broadband Council is an independent operating unit.

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 17 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."

Minnesota's Lake County Fiber Network Begins Connecting Customers

The Lake County fiber network is now serving a limited number of customers in northern Minnesota. According to the Lake County News Chronicle, the network's triple-play services are lit and bringing better connectivity to Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

About 100 customers in Silver Bay take service via the network; beta testers in Two Harbors are helping Lake Connections, the entity managing the network, straighten out any kinks in Phase One. Phase Two, which is more than 60% complete, will bring service to Duluth Township, Knife River, Silver Creek Townships, and Beaver Bay Township. Phase Two is scheduled for completion this summer; Lake Connections anticipates network completion in the fall of 2015.

The Lake County project has been plagued with problems, including delays cause by incumbents. Mediacom filed complaints with the Inspector General based on unsound allegations. While the cable company was not confident enough to sue, its accusations wasted time and money for Lake County. Frontier asserted ownership of a significant number of Two Harbors utility poles, even though the City has maintained them, and the two are still involved in negotiations over ownership and fiber placement on the poles. The Minnesota Cable Companies Association (MCCA) delayed the project further by submitting a massive data request.

The FTTH project is one of the largest stimulus projects, totaling approximately $70 million in grants, loans, and local matching funds. The project will cover almost 3,000 square miles when complete, connect almost 100 community anchor institutions, and provide services to over 1,000 businesses.

As we have noted before, the project was sorely needed. On more than one occasion, a single fiber cut to the area created Internet black outs to homes, businesses, hospitals, government, and any other entity depending on connectivity to function.

In Two Harbors, outdoor equipment supplier Granite Gear is on the new network. In the past, the entire company shared one DSL connection, forcing the company art director to work at night when bandwidth was available. Now, everyone works normal hours. From the article:

Dave Johnson, the strategic accounts manager for the 28-year-old company, said fast internet has become essential to Granite Gear in recent years.

“It’s not just nice having faster internet, but it has become an absolute necessity,” he said.

“Business is not just pushing emails back and forth. We maintain a website,” he said. “Doing business has become real bandwidth intensive.” A new technological era has dawned and companies are evolving to keep pace with their competitors.

Granite Gear Logo

Johnson told us via email that uploading files for customers in the past used to take hours but now the task takes a few minutes and does not disrupt service for other employees.

Delays have created extra expenses and Lake County will need more customers like Granite Gear to make the network strong. According to the article, the County has already started making loan payments:

[County Commissioner Rich] Sve said he understands his constituents’ concerns that the network may not be viable.

“I share that concern as a taxpayer. I think it’s legitimate,” he said.

But, he added, private companies have not stepped forward to provide the service, despite encouragement by federal and state government to do so. The county, therefore, opted to undertake the task.

“So far, we’re pleased with what we’re getting in Silver Bay and hopeful that it continues,” [Lake Connections Project Manager Jeff Roiland] said.

Businesses and residents interested in signing up for service from Lake Connections can contact them today to make arrangements:

“The biggest thing to do is contact our staff,” Roiland said. “They can call in (or) walk in and the gals at the office can explain to them what to do.”

Chattanooga and Wilson Petition FCC to Remove Anti-Competitive Restrictions

Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, are two of the most successful municipal fiber networks by a variety of metrics, including jobs created, aggregate community savings, and more. This has led to significant demand from surrounding communities for Wilson and Chattanooga to expand. We have profiled both of them in case studies: Wilson and Chattanooga.

Expecting this outcome, the big cable and telephone companies had pressured the states to limit where municipal networks can offer service, unlike the private companies that can invest anywhere. Wilson cannot expand beyond county limits. Chattanooga already serves its entire electrical footprint, which stretches into northern Georgia and includes a few other towns but cannot serve anyone beyond that.

FCC Chairman Wheeler has been quite clear that he intends to remove barriers to competition that limit local authority to build community networks.

Today, Wilson and North Carolina have filed petitions with the FCC to remove restrictions on their ability to expand and offer services to nearby communities. These barriers were created after major lobbying campaigns by Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable, one of which we chronicled in The Empire Lobbies Back. We have also explained how the FCC can take this action and interviewed Harold Feld on the matter.

Read press statements from Chattanooga EPB and Wilson, North Carolina [pdf]. Also, Wilson's Full Petition and Exhibits [pdf], Chattanooga's Petition [pdf], and Chattanooga's Exhibits [pdf]. Jim Baller worked with them on the filing, so you know the facts are straight.

We issued a press release this afternoon,

“The move today cuts right to the heart of local authority,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks with The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “The ultimate question is who decides what investments are right for each community — that community or officials far removed from it..”

If the FCC agrees with the petitions, the big cable companies will almost certainly appeal it to the DC Circuit Court, where a recent Verizon v. FCC opinion specifically noted that this type of action is well within its authority.

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On behalf of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, CEO Joanne Hovis wrote,

The net effect is to stifle competition, harm public and private sector economic development, and extinguish associated quality of life improvements in education, health care, energy use and public safety. Nearby communities that desperately want services from these networks are prevented from receiving it. Wilson and Chattanooga have asked the FCC to step in using its authority to promote advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans and preempt these state laws; to let local choice prevail.

Because the power of incumbent providers is so great in each state legislature, there is little hope for a remedy at the state level. These petitions are part of a larger discussion at the national level, whether the promise of modern Internet access will be for ALL Americans, or only for some.

And both Sam Gustin and Karl Bode were quick to post on the matter as well. Sam wrote on Motherboard at Vice:

In states throughout the country, major cable and telecom companies have battled attempts to create community broadband networks, which they claim put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Last week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the cable and telecommunications industry, introduced an amendment to a key appropriations bill that would prevent the FCC from preempting such state laws. The amendment passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 233-200, but is unlikely to make it through the Senate.

And Karl Bode called it "Put Up or Shut Up Time for FCC on Community Broadband:"

Comcast and AT&T have quickly moved to stop the FCC's potential assault on their protectionist laws via both lawsuit threats via proxy groups, and via politicians like Martha Blackburn, who, after receiving campaign contributions from PACs tied to both companies -- has passed a bill in the House threatening to strip FCC funding if the agency dares to act. It's not a fight that would be easy, but it's a fight the FCC should win -- and it's a long-overdue fight that must be had if we're to finally start taking broadband competition problems seriously.

As with consumer advocate requests that ISPs be reclassified as utilities as a solution to neutrality concerns, this is another area where Wheeler can prove he's either thrown aside his long-history of industry lobbying and is ready to fight for consumers, or is just another in a very long line of FCC bosses too timid to meaningfully challenge deep-pocketed campaign contributors and the status quo.

And finally, we have seen an outpouring of grassroots support for this effort.

Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part II here

In Part I of this story, we laid out the difficult situation the open access UTOPIA network finds itself in and how it got there. Part II gave the broad outlines of Macquarie’s preliminary proposal for a public-private partnership to complete and operate the network. The numbers we deal with here are mostly from the Milestone One report, and assumed the participation of all 11 cities. It should be noted that since five of eleven UTOPIA cities opted out of proceeding to Milestone Two negotiations, the scope and scale of the project is subject to change. The basic structure of the potential deal is mostly set, however, allowing us to draw some reasonable conclusions about whether or not this deal is good for the citizens of the UTOPIA cities.

Let’s first turn to why Macquarie wants to make this investment.  This would be the firm’s first large scale broadband network investment in the U.S., allowing it to get a foothold in a massive market that has a relatively underdeveloped fiber infrastructure. To offset network build and operation costs, it will also be guaranteed the revenue from the monthly utility fee, which my very rough calculations put between $18 and $20 million for the six cities opting in to Milestone Two (or between $30 and $33 million per year for all 11 cities) depending on whether the final fee ends up closer to $18 or $20 per month.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA puts Macquarie’s base rate of return between 3.7% and 4.7%, which is slim enough that they should have the incentive to make the network successful and truly universal, boosting their share of the revenue from transport fees in the process.

The monthly utility fee is a difficult pill for UTOPIA cities to swallow politically, and has allowed opponents to paint it as a massive new tax.  But this claim ignores the costs of the existing $500 million debt (including interest), which will have to be paid regardless of whether the network is ever completed or any more revenue is generated.

The existing debt adds up to about $8.50 per month per address over 30 years, without accounting for ongoing operating losses (or bond prepayment penalties if the network goes dark) or necessary network maintenance and upgrades. Without completing the network, there is no hope that it could return to self-sufficiency, meaning it would likely require operating subsidies in perpetuity.

Again, Jesse Harris has paved the way by doing an analysis of what is in the best interest of taxpayers from a purely self-interested perspective (ignoring indirect benefits of the network) here and here. As he sees it, it all depends on the take rate: if Macquarie can reach a 38% take rate in the newly expanded network coverage area, the entire deal will cost the same for taxpayers as simply selling off the network. A higher take rate would mean the cities actually spend less to get a completed network than they would to sell it off. But that’s only a narrow look at the balance sheet.

Even at the point where the deal is a wash financially, cities still get a completed network with an included basic level of service for every resident. Comcast and CenturyLink will slash their prices substantially in response to the competition (at least 50% in Provo) so that every citizen benefits regardless of if they use the network. Even for someone with a very basic Internet connection that wouldn’t use the network, they would be paying no more than $11.48 to potentially save at least $15, a net gain. The cities also get a $100M annual revenue stream at the end of the 30-year contract, effectively making the worst case scenario break even after less than seven years of ownership.

Opponents, especially those from the CenturyLink-funded Utah Taxpayer Association (UTA), have focused on the extra cost from the new utility fee to the small segment of the population that neither has nor wants a telecommunications connection. However, some studies have also shown that a fiber connection increases the value of a property, so there really may be some gain for everyone under this deal.

As it stands today, 2,100 miles of fiber have already been built, 70% of it underground. 40% of UTOPIA addresses are passed by the network (meaning they are able to purchase a connection upfront or on a payment plan), but only 10% are actually connected. Some cities are almost completely covered, others less than 20%. Some neighborhoods have one side of a street where connections are offered and the other where services are unavailable. The result of constant funding constraints, frivolous incumbent lawsuits, and poor planning, these pieces of stranded infrastructure can still be reclaimed and capitalized on with additional investment. 

Essentially, UTOPIA city taxpayers are on the hook either way. They can either get something for their troubles with the Macquarie deal (and maybe even end up paying less), or they can call it quits and pay to shut it down. They‘ve taken out a mortgage and built most of the house, but run out of money before they put a roof on. They can either restructure the debt and get on a payment plan to finish the roof, or they can watch the house rot and pay the mortgage for 30 years anyway. 

It is important to note that UTOPIA has a unique dynamic because the network has struggled financially (unlike the vast majority of community networks, most of which use a different business model and learned from the early mistakes of UTOPIA). We have not yet seen any communities proposing to establish a utility fee from the start, but it is an interesting proposition and we will explore it at length in a paper later this summer.

UTOPIA at a Crossroads: Part 1

This is the first of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward.

At the end of a month of public meetings, hearings, and city council votes, just over half of the cities that make up UTOPIA have chosen to take the next step in their negotiations with the Macquarie Group. The massive Australian investment bank has put forward an offer to become a partner in the troubled network in exchange for a $300 million capital infusion to finish the long-stalled FTTH buildout.

Of the 11 member cities that have debt obligations for the network, six (comprising about 60% of all 163,000 addresses in the UTOPIA area) have voted to proceed to “Milestone 2,” which means digging into details and starting serious negotiations on the terms of a potential public-private partnership. Macquarie outlined their opening proposal in their Milestone 1 report in April.

Macquarie has about $145 billion in assets globally, and is no stranger to large scale infrastructure projects. Their Infrastructure and Real Assets division has stakes in Mexican real estate, Taiwanese broadband networks, Kenyan wind power, and a New Jersey toll bridge, to name just a few. For their UTOPIA investment, they would be working with Alcatel Lucent and Fujitsu, highly capable international IT companies. So there’s some serious corporate firepower across the negotiating table from the UTOPIA cities - and in this case, that’s not actually a bad thing.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA has an excellent overview of the whole messy history of UTOPIA and the limited options the network’s member cities now face. While the network offers true competition, low prices, and gigabit speeds through an open access FTTH network, UTOPIA has faced a slew of setbacks over the years, from incumbent lawsuits and astroturf activism to mismanagement, poor expansion planning, loan disputes, and restrictive state laws. As a result, the network remains unfinished, with just over 60,000 of 163,000 addresses having been passed by fiber, while member cities are on the hook for about $500 million in long term debt and interest payments to go with annual operating losses in the realm of $2.4 million.

The UTOPIA cities have some choices to make. They could simply shut the network down, eliminating the operating costs - but also depriving the area of its best chance at ubiquitous and affordable high speed internet access, losing the revenue from current customers, and doing nothing about the long term debt. This would essentially guarantee that the cities would continue to make bond payments for the next 30 years while receiving nothing. It would also leave the many local businesses  that depend on the network’s reliable speed high and dry.

Or the cities could choose to sell the network, as nearby Provo did with its fiber network after state restrictions requiring an infeasible business model took their toll. Any proceeds from a UTOPIA sale would be dwarfed by the outstanding bonds, however, leaving the cities with most of the debt left to pay and little to show for it, handing over control of a local infrastructure asset to the highest bidder. This did not work out especially well in Provo, where the public sector held onto the network’s debt while a private provider (Broadweave) struggled to operate it. They have had better luck with a subsequent sale to Google, but still retain the public debt without community ownership. This is a fate UTOPIA cities should avoid if at all possible.

Stay tuned for the rest of this series. In Part 2, we’ll break down the main points of the preliminary Macquarie proposal. In Part 3 we’ll weigh the pros and cons, showing why this deal has the potential to make the best of a difficult situation for UTOPIA-area residents and businesses.

Santa Fe Ready to Improve Local Internet Choice

The City of Santa Fe is taking first steps to improve the community's Internet choice, quality, and availability. Recently, the City announced that it has chosen a partner for a middle mile investment and will move forward with the $1 million fiber deployment project.

CenturyLink and Comcast serve Santa Fe, home to approximately 70,000 people. Residents and businesses both complain about slow speeds and relatively high costs. Residents pay $50 per month for average speeds of 5 Mbps while nearby Albuquerque pays the same price for 10 Mbps, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

CenturyLink owns the sole fiber hut connecting the community with the Internet. The company also owns the line bringing access to the web to downtown, giving it control over data transmittal in the city. A city press release, reprinted at SantaFe.com in May 2013 described the problem:

Every home and most businesses already have two physical routes to the Internet: A telephone line and a television cable...But in spite of this abundance of pathways, there is a crucial missing link in the infrastructure, an enduring legacy of the former telephone monopoly. This missing link spans from the central telephone office to a location about two miles away where several fiber optic cables emerge from the ground after traversing many miles of road, railroad and countryside from remote junctions across the state. Absent this two-mile link, local providers have only one way to connect to the outside world, and must pay a steep toll on the data transmitted over it. 

The City recently announced that it would work with local ISP Cyber Mesa to build an independent line from downtown to CenturyLink's fiber hut. The City hopes the line will introduce much needed competition, encouraging better service and prices.

According to the plan, Cyber Mesa will run the City's fiber service for four years; after that other bidders can apply to manage the network. Three other companies bid on the project, including CenturyLink who told the City "not to waste money on the project." CenturyLink opposes the plan, of course, and Chris spoke with the New Mexican about what to expect from the incumbents:

Mitchell also warned that the city should not expect competition to flourish on its own, saying Internet giants such as Comcast and Century Link “have a lot of power to run competitors out of business.”

Mitchell warned that Comcast and Century Link have a history of opposing public Internet infrastructure projects through legislation, and that the city should expect resistance if it continues building such projects.

“They’re very happy with the market the way it is,” Mitchell said.

Citylink Logo

The project details have raised a few eyebrows from industry experts. While the plan to build another line will provide another path to the Internet, one of the bidders, CityLink Fiber, questions the wisdom of the plan:

[CityLink Owner John] Brown said that in his bid he proposed creating a 7-mile loop that would have accomplished the city’s goals and provided additional coverage and redundancy. The city didn’t bite, saying that he couldn’t complete the project within the funding limits, he said.

Brown said he could, but the city remained unconvinced and instead opted for Cyber Mesa.

He also questioned the need for running cable through Century Link’s central exchange, saying it was unnecessary and expensive.

We have been impressed with John Brown's work and are inclined to believe him. But regardless of the details, local businesses are hungry for better service. A local Web design firm owner, Damien Taggart, notes that large data files can take hours to transmit.

Smaller ISPs are also looking forward to an option beyond CenturyLink. Joel Yelich, president of a local wireless provider told the New Mexican:

“I certainly hope that is successful in some way,” Yelich said. “The more competition, the better.”

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.