Open the airwaves to close the bandwidth shortage

There is no bandwidth shortage. Visitors to Burning Man will get free cellular calls this weekend as a result.

The continuing shortage of Internet bandwidth which drives the network neutrality debate has always puzzled me. (An OpenBTS development kit, from the project's Sourceforge site.)

Reason being there is no real shortage. The bottleneck has always been in the "last mile," the on-ramp of your cell phone or your PC, or the router connection your home network uses to reach the outside world.

This is an artificial shortage, the product of a proprietary mindset.

Phone and cable companies own these on-ramps, and the right to create new ones. They use this control to create the idea of a shortage everywhere, to keep prices high, and to threaten content owners with new charges for "premium access" to "their" customers.

In theory they are easy to bypass through the air. But because frequencies are "sold," meaning rights to use them are offered at auction by the government, the same phone and cable companies wind up controlling the air as well.

We can, if we want, have a virtually unlimited number of on-ramps, wherever we need them, at minimal cost. Proof, again, is being delivered to the Burning Man festival in Nevada this week.

OpenBTS provides the answer. It's a simple, open source framework that can create a GSM cellular network at one-tenth current costs. It's licensed under the AGPL.

This year's set-up uses a third less equipment and half the power of last year's, but with twice the capacity. With a single LMR-900 tower and a weatherproof travel rack, Range Networks will be able to give all 50,000 participants free cellular calls during the festival, then take the whole thing down when the show is over.

OpenBTS is not the only solution to this problem. OpenBSC also offers a "GSM network in a box," which can also deliver service on-demand.

With licensed frequencies, an entire urban network must be built-out at once and constantly maintained by one company, which is why cellular bandwidth costs so much. With open source, anyone can add capacity as needed.

If systems like OpenBTS didn't have to say "mother may I" with licensed carriers in order to serve demand, then demand could be served, defined by hardware instead of property, and the bandwidth shortage would quickly disappear.

We know that's true because WiFi, whose frequency allocation hasn't increased in over a decade, can now deliver efficient 100 Mbps networks to hospitals and corporate campuses, which move critical imaging files without interference.

Carriers like AT&T encourage customers to use WiFi whenever possible, claiming they just don't have the capacity to deliver, even though they own more frequency than WiFi occupies in most areas.

The problem is that we have a regulatory regime which assumes scarcity, which creates bottlenecks, and which rewards monopolists with money coerced through a political process rather than earned through the market.

What's hilarious is how defenders of this system call it "free enterprise," and call open source "socialism."  Open source creates vast markets with lots of players. The current system is government-enforced monopoly.

An open source, and open frequency, mindset in Washington can change that. Something to think about this Labor Day weekend.