Bluetooth won't bite the hand that frees it

With Ultrawideband bringing Bluetooth hundreds of megabits, the future of wireless innovation has shed the bonds of spectrum regulation
Written by Leader , Contributor

The history of wireless is one of constant warfare between the old guard and new services. Broadcasting itself was banned in 1920 because it interfered with military signals, only to be reintroduced two years later through intense pressure from would-be listeners. The military then found that if they made their radios a bit better, they could block out Nelly Melba and still get General Melchett clearer than ever.

That pattern has been repeated ever since, with technology solving problems that the regulator considered impassable. According to the UK radio regulator in 1970, there was only room in the airwaves for four television stations and eight radiophone channels in the UK. Thirty years later, we have 68 million mobile phone subscribers and uncountable TV channels — all without interfering with the Archers.

So the lack of current European regulatory approval for Uultrawideband Bluetooth shouldn't be seen as a big problem — even by those who've complained in the past that they'll suffer from having to share their frequencies with the upstart standard. The regulators are helpless in the face of the uncountable millions of UWB radio chips that'll appear in phones around the world, so the relevant legislation will be passed quickly enough to avoid embarrassment.

Will the existing services suffer? It's unlikely. Radio technology is getting increasingly sophisticated, and new stuff is carefully engineered to avoid causing problems. The companies designing it have a significant investment in keeping the old stuff going, after all. We've seen unlicensed services that used to interfere with each other, such as Bluetooth and 802.11, acquire the intelligence and agility to usefully coexist — and all without a regulator in sight.

Ultrawideband Bluetooth is a vanguard for the future, the first service that's told the world "ready or not, here I come." While there is certainly a role for spectrum regulation in the future, it must have the lightest possible touch and the most liberal renunciation of restrictions. Designers and service providers alike must also recognise that from here on in, there will be no guarantee that they'll have sole occupancy of any new band that comes up. Be robust, be smart, be prepared to change: if you can't say yes to all three, don't expect to be taken seriously. The old guard is on the run, and the rules are changing.

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