Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 18/7/2006 There's a wireless band coming up for consideration; it's allocated to 3G overflow, but the regulators are wondering whether to repurpose it for more general-purpose use. Unsurprisingly, the GSM Association isn't keen.

Tuesday 18/7/2006

There's a wireless band coming up for consideration; it's allocated to 3G overflow, but the regulators are wondering whether to repurpose it for more general-purpose use. Unsurprisingly, the GSM Association isn't keen.

The argument is simply stated: the mobile phone companies do not want competition from new technologies. As there's no band available at the moment for a mobile phone competitor, the incumbents have a free run — but there will be some more frequencies coming up for reuse shortly. If those bands are 'neutral' — not tied to any particular technology — then new ideas and potentially disruptive products can appear; as with Wi-Fi; if the band is licensed with strict standards for its users, as GSM and 3G, then there are fewer surprises.

The GSM operators' concerns aren't stated as such — they're just worried about a fragmented market keeping prices high and therefore not serving customers well. Bless. They do have a point, though; the very regulated approach produced a stunning success in the GSM worldwide network — but then, the hands-off approach produced a stunning success with the chain of WiFi standards.

Regulated bands are troublesome when the service to which they're allocated is a commercial failure. Then you end up with acres of underused spectrum — if you're really unlucky, with a few users who can't be moved off to a different service They're also bad for efficiency as they encourage the continuation of old technology, which is why the switch over to digital TV is taking the best part of a decade.

What the regulators and network operators know, though, is that in time all this will stop mattering. Software defined or cognitive radio renders the question moot: when you have a common circuit that can modify itself in software to any radio specification, then brand new standards can be introduced at any time and with minimal disruption. It's even proposed that bunches of cognitive radios can evolve their own standards by monitoring band conditions, maximising throughput without interfering with other signals, and pass each other code fragments to more efficiently implement their decisions.

There are a lot of similarities between that approach and what actually happens on the wired Internet. New protocols and services are constantly being invented and distributed — Skype took practically no time to get onto millions of computers, for example — with no central regulating or controlling authority. It works very well, and wireless regulators are consciously trying to find ways to make the radio spectrum more like the Internet — as the regulators themselves admit, they're not the world's most accurate predictors of the future, so the best deal they can offer is frequently just to get out of the way.

The question is: does the freewheeling, hyperevolving Internet work because it is so free, or because everyone on it is using an agreed, non-mutable, rather elderly standard called IP? Both, of course, so perhaps the most useful way to regulate the radio is just to posit the basic protocols by which radios can sniff each other's bottoms before deciding how to talk to each other. That's work to be done.

Bear in mind, though, that while we get there, there'll be some ferocious rearguard action from the established operators. Just see it for what it is.

 

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