Bands on the run - how the wireless future will be out of control

Rupert Goodwins: New technology makes old ideas obsolete, but when those ideas are part of a global regulatory tradition going back a century they're difficult to shift

As the last whisper from the Pioneer 10 probe faded into cosmic crackle last week, radio has never seemed more magical. Nearly eight billion miles away, the 30-year-old craft was only 11 hours away by radio. At the last, its transmitter was only around ten times more powerful than your mobile phone, yet the signal got through.

That it did was in part because the radio bands assigned to deep space communication are ferociously guarded. Like all frequencies around the world, the one used by Pioneer is the subject of national and international regulations, designed to stop taxi firms from knocking out distant spacecraft and junglist DJs from splatting the police. Yet at a lively and controversial conference held in Stanford University's Law School at the beginning of March, engineers, legislators and entrepreneurs locked horns over the idea that this level of regulation is not only outdated but dangerous.

You know the story by now. Wireless was discovered by a collection of mostly bonkers people at the end of the 19th century. Shortly after that, it was noticed that everyone's signal interfered with everyone else's and it took Marconi's invention -- well, patenting -- of tuning to sort everyone out and give everyone their own little slice of the radio pie. Governments immediately stepped in and took control of who got what frequency, and for 100 years all was as Guglielmo made it. Uncontrolled access would lead to the famous tragedy of the commons: if everyone can graze their sheep on common ground, then over-use will lead to short-term gain for the individual at the expense of the long-term resource for everyone.

In wireless' second century, everything is different. In the old days, you couldn't have two stations on the same frequency because they'd interfere: now, two stations on the same frequency just means double the bandwidth. Electronically, there's no such thing as interference, just two signals in the same place at the same time on the same frequency. All the information from both is still there, and with suitably smart mathematics -- in other words, suitably fast processors -- you can extract the lot. Or you can use smart antennae, which receive loads of signals on the same frequency but distinguishes between them by direction.

Take the old idea that spectrum is precious: the more transmitters you have in a particular area, the more carefully it has to be ladled out to each. Turns out that once you make your transmitter a relay capable of forwarding stuff, the more you have in one place the more bandwidth you get. Just make sure the transmitter knows to keep the power down to the minimum necessary, and everyone else gets to reuse the same frequencies. Add in the stuff about distinguishing interfering signals and directing your transmissions using those smart antennae, and it gets really clever. Mix in ultrawideband where the very idea of separate frequencies is lost, and the transformation is complete. It's the tragedy of the commons turned on its head -- in digital polymath Cory Doctorow's words, "a sheep that shits grass."

Furthermore, as people demand more and more bandwidth, the old way of allocating frequencies just can't keep up. There isn't enough free space and what there is, is regulated. A lot of these brave new wireless ideas will need a lot of experimenting, and on a grand scale, but they will have to evolve if the potential of the unwired world is to be realised. This won't happen while the regulators see spectrum through Marconi's eyes -- a valuable, scarce resource that can be parcelled out for money -- but it's hard to see how to have a world in transition where both old and new methods coexist. Your wonderful wireless network won't stand a chance if I fire up my half-kilowatt of amateur radio transmitter next door.

Regulation isn't good or bad per se: on one hand, an under-regulated market produces the mess that is the US mobile phone system, while a tightly regulated approach led to the worldwide GSM system. On the other, the explosion of Wi-Fi and related delights came about because the radio band it uses is so laissez-faire. As the Stanford conference unfolded -- aptly relayed to the world by bloggers armed with wireless networks -- the discussion twisted and turned through practicalities, idealism, philosophy and technology.

The short answer is: nobody knows what the right balance is. The long answer is: there has to be a revolution, and these are hard in places where every tradition is of total control. Perhaps an easing of access to some of the less used amateur radio bands, allowing semi-commercial experimentation, would help. But the important thing now is that everyone with an interest joins the debate -- including the UK's regulators, radio data companies and visionaries. The discussion is live: just follow the link to the conference and get stuck in. The radio world needs pioneers.

Click here to see a map of the UK's Wi-Fi hot spots.


Discover the latest developments in Wi-Fi, 3G, GPRS and other cutting-edge wireless technologies at ZDNet UK's Wireless News Section.

Let the editors know what you think in the Mailroom.