Setting radio free

Summary:Adding new services to the radio spectrum is a complex but necessary task as wireless technology becomes increasingly important

These are only some of the conflicts that Ofcom has to judge. The debate is taking place in national, European and global contexts, and at each level different interests have to be understood and factored in. Radio waves don't stop at borders, and in a world where millions of people move between territories clutching mobile phones, wireless-enabled laptops and whatever comes next, the transmitters don't stay at home either.

"There are three ways to manage spectrum: command and control — the old way, market forces, and unregulated access for all," says Ofcom's Webb. His high level message is that licensed systems managed through spectrum usage rights provide a good level of technology neutrality, letting people chose the most appropriate way to provide a particular service. The real issues are where unlicensed systems want access to licensed spectrum.

"Can the market work it out?" he says. "With cognitive radio, this is possible. The cognitive radio people can talk to existing licence holders and sort things out between them." He doesn't believe it is possible for UWB. "We are examining the cost-benefit equation and our statutory duties for UWB. There are very many licence holders between 3 and 10 GHz, and UWB will have lots of uncoordinated users. The market can't fix that." One of question here is whether the size of the market created by UWB and the benefits it gives will be larger than any putative problems it causes to the cellular radio operators — who may have to install more base stations to overcome the extra noise caused by a sea of UWB devices. "We feel our remit lies more towards flexibility than certainty." says Webb.

Phillipe Lefebvre, of the European Commission's directorate general for information society and media's radio spectrum policy unit, claims that the European approach had the objectives of innovation, competitiveness versus other markets, balance between commercial and public interests and to reduce overall spectrum scarcity. He outlines two management models, starting with spectrum trading, where people are free to buy and sell bands. This is very advanced in the UK, Norway and Sweden, he says. For that to work and to pre-empt future fragmentation across Europe, he wants to see a common definition of tradable rights and a convergence of trading in suitable bands.

The second model is the collective use of spectrum as a commons — and to this end, his group was launching a tender to better understand the approach. This will include underlay use and sharing of licenced spectrum but, like Ofcom, the emphasis is on further research to better understand the real life implications of decisions.

Even where a particular regulatory approach has proved a remarkable success, it's hard to draw lessons. As ex-FCC legislator Michael Marcus points out, "GSM was the triumph of the old European regulators, a standard that was rigorously defined from top to bottom and became a worldwide success. Wi-Fi was the triumph of the American laissez-faire approach, a standard that evolved in a spectrum that was almost completely unrestricted about what you could do and how, and it too became a worldwide success. Both approaches can work, both can fail."

The lesson of the conference is that there are no quick solutions, to expanding the use of wireless for new services, that come without a price. New technologies can appear far quicker than the regulators can sensibly respond to them, especially when they conflict with existing or other new services. The move is towards liberalisation, and the regulators are sensible of the importance of not letting outdated legal concepts of radio act as too much of a brake on innovation. But nothing is too outré to be ignored: expect a pragmatic approach to spectrum liberalisation, biased where possible to allowing new ideas to have their chance in the marketplace — and on the air.

Topics: Networking

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Editor, ZDNet UK. Ex technology/technical editor of ZDNet UK, IT Week, PC Magazine, Computer Life, Mac User, Alfa Systems, Amstrad, Sinclair. Micronet 800, Marconi Space and Defence Systems, and a dodgy TV repair shop in the back streets of Plymouth. Can still swap out a gassy PL509 with the best of 'em.Dear Reader - contact me via our m... Full Bio

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