revolutionary ideas for spectrum policy

Regulations long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.  For many years, a large area of radio regulation has developed based on a consensus that it predominately concerns technical aspects of radio signal interference.  Few persons are able to contribute to deliberations thus organized.  Yet centuries of conversation and experience have explored, in ways deeply relevant to everyone, the meaning of interference and freedom.  Now interactive, broadband and ubiquitous communications, which undoubtedly will depend heavily on radio, are expected to reshape personal activities and relationships.  Radio regulation should no longer be a field ruled by a reason inaccessible to most persons.  Now is the time for radio regulation to recognize, as most persons do, revolutionary ideas about government, persons, and freedom.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence remains relevant.

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cost of digital radio sytems for public safety

Just outside of Washington, D.C., Arlington County recently opened a new, state-of-the-art emergency communications center (ECC). The ECC includes a new digital radio system that complies with Project 25. Project 25 defines new standards for interoperability of public safety communication systems.

Interoperability is a common issue in the communications industry. Communications standards and universal interoperability were key to the growth of the internet. Interoperability did not develop as rapidly in public safety communications systems. Older public safety communications system often did not allow neighboring public safety organizations to communicate with each other.

Arlington’s new digital radio system was about twice as expensive as all the rest of the center. The fact sheet for the project notes:

Cost of the new ECC is approximately $9.6 million, including construction costs; furniture; video capabilities; cabling; 9-1-1 software and equipment; and technology equipment, included computer-aided dispatch. Cost of the new digital radio system is approximately $18 million.

For comparison, consider the cost of your house, furniture, televisions, personal computers, and personal software. Compare that to the cost of your digital cell phones, DSL or cable modems, and all other digital communication technology that you own. The cost of your house and its contents is probably on the order of a thousand times greater than the cost of your digital radio systems. Moreover, just your house and furniture probably cost a thousand times more than all the digital technology that you own.

Of course, emergency communications systems have extraordinary requirements. But so too do emergency communications buildings, furniture, software, and other equipment used in an emergency communication center.

Digital radio systems for public safety seem to have lagged far behind cost-performance improvements for other digital technologies. This outcome suggests the importance of institutions and ideas to results in different communications fields.

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human rights to communicate using radio devices

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes a right to freedom of expression. Article 10 of the European Declaration of Human Rights does likewise. Regulation of the use of radio devices can restrict freedom of expression. What sort of radio regulation is justified under human rights law?

Under the prompting of Open Spectrum, human rights organizations are beginning to consider this question. With respect to licensing requirements (one type of restriction on radio use), a human rights organization called Article 19 stated in a brief note (MS Word doc):

A licence requirement for wireless communications devices clearly constitutes a restriction and therefore it must be 1) provided by law; 2) serve a legitimate aim; and 3) be necessary for the attainment of that aim.

A necessary restriction for attaining a legitimate aim under law is no more restrictive than a feasible alternative, narrowly tailored, and proportionate to the aim.

Article 19’s brief but pioneering analysis seems to have at least one weakness. The analysis suggested that “preventing chaos in the frequency spectrum is a legitimate goal” under human rights law. Under Article 19(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one legitimate aim for restricting freedom of expression is to protect public order. One might consider protecting public order to encompass preventing chaos in the frequency spectrum. However, focus on order among frequencies, like focus on relations between bodies of water, can lead to law with little connection to the facts of communication among persons. Particularly with respect to human rights, public order is probably better understood in terms of order among persons (the public). Compared to the extent of chaos in the frequency spectrum, actual personal freedom to communicate is a much more meaningful public issue.

Freedom of expression is directly related to the real circumstances of contemporary life. In an insightful response to Ofcom’s consultation entitled “Spectrum Framework Review,” Open Spectrum UK noted:

The justifications given in the current consultation for utilising market forces refer to maximising economic benefits and spectrum efficiency. However, one must not forget that the regulation of radio was instituted internationally not to control interference but to reign in the business practices of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.

Knowledge of technology and examination of leading practices world-wide provides insight into what sort of communications capabilities persons could have at a given time. Radio regulation that deprives persons of these capabilities deserves to be assailed as a violation of human rights.

rights to communicate using radio spectrum

An important trend in communications policy has been to give persons more freedom to communicate using radio devices. The U.K. Office of Communication (Ofcom) currently is consulting on new ways of defining licenses for communicating using radio spectrum. Ofcom proposes to specify in licenses spectrum usage rights. It proposes to define these rights by specifying geographic boundaries and about thirteen parameters relating to power flux density, including parameters relating to time and location density. Of course, many other parameters will be relevant to modeling and measuring these rights. Compared to the structure of parameters embedded in specific technologies and applications, this new structure of license parameters gives licensees more freedom to communicate using different radio technologies and for different purposes.

Adjudication of spectrum usage rights through an institution separate from the spectrum regulatory body would make spectrum usage rights less uncertain and more secure. The authoritative meaning of spectrum usage rights may not be clear. If the spectrum regulatory body adjudicates the spectrum rights that it issues, it can further specify or revise the rights it grants through the adjudicatory process. If an independent body adjudicates the rights, then the spectrum regulatory body cannot do this. Independent adjudication disciplines the public specification of spectrum usage rights. Similarly, the spectrum regulatory body might prefer at some future time to revise spectrum usage rights granted earlier. Having an independent institution adjudicate spectrum usage rights makes those rights more secure under subsequent changes in spectrum policy.

radio regulation in low-income countries

About the year 2001, 40% of persons in the world lived in countries where there was less than one fixed-line telephone per hundred persons. Good radio regulation can help to foster rapid development of communication capabilities for many persons around the world.

Björn Wellenius and Isabel Neto of the World Bank recently posted a paper, The Radio Spectrum: Opportunities and Challenges for the Developing World. I hope this important topic gets more attention in development economics.

Update: Check out this very impressive website and book on Wireless Networking in the Developing World.

warrantless searches: the banal and the newsworthy

With the aid of high-tech equipment not in general public use, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) monitors radiation emanating from a variety of sities, including homes. In addition, the FCC claims legal authority to enter a home without a search warrant, find a device of concern, and collect information about it (“inspect radio equipment”).

Under such regulation, Benjamin Franklin might have gotten into trouble with the law for messing with spark-gap radiators (Leyden jars) within his home. Perhaps to avoid that danger he might have invented an effective cloaking technology.

Why is government monitoring of radiation associated with illegal home-based radio stations less controversial than government monitoring of radiation associated with a potentially catastrophic “dirty bomb”?

Why is inspection, without a specific warrant, of radio devices within homes less controversial than inspection, without a specific warrent, of suspected communication about terrorists acts?

Perhaps because spy agencies and terrorism provide an exciting framework for grave scholarly discussion and heated political hyperbole. Radio regulation, in contrast, is, well, boring. You don’t even need leaked classified documents to find out about government monitoring of (radio) radiation!

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What's The Frequency, Kenneth?

I applaud important new research from MIT on the frequency attenuation properties of aluminum foil deflector beanie helmets (AFDBHs). This research concludes:

It requires no stretch of the imagination to conclude that the current helmet craze is likely to have been propagated by the Government, possibly with the involvement of the FCC. We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings.

The research indicates that AFDBHs disturb radio frequency waves. Nonetheless, the FCC has never regulated the use of AFDBHs. Thus the FCC is probably not responsible for the rapid growth in the use of this radio device.

secure rights to use radio devices

A lot of ink has been spilled about “defining property rights in radio spectrum.” Unfortunately much of the discussion has lacked sufficient appreciation for physics and for institutions. In “Property Rights in Spectrum: Taking the Next Step,” Dale Hatfield and Phil Weiser discuss some important issues of signal characteristics that have been largely ignored in the U.S., but not in Britain and Australia. For more details, see Section II of my work, “Revolutionary Ideas for Radio Regulation.”

Update: Playing around with blog searching, I found two blogs (here and here) presenting this article. These blog entries seem to me to be focused on fostering publicity (a fine and important communication function) rather than on advancing discussion of the article. Am I missing some aspect of blogging here?