as a commons
Almost everything you think you know about spectrum is wrong.
For nearly a century, radio frequency spectrum has been treated as a scarce resource that the
government must parcel out through exclusive licenses. Spectrum licensing brought us radio, television,
cellular telephones and vital public safety services. Along the way, the licensing model became
an unquestioned paradigm, pervading our views. We simply can’t imagine doing anything else.
The assumptions underlying the dominant paradigm for spectrum management no longer hold. Today’s
digital technologies are smart enough to distinguish between signals, allowing users to share
the airwaves without exclusive licensing. Instead of treating spectrum as a scarce physical resource,
we could make it available to all as a commons, an approach known as “open spectrum.”
Open spectrum would allow for more efficient and creative use of the precious resource of the
airwaves. It could enable innovative services, reduce prices, foster competition, create new
business opportunities, and bring our communications policies in line with our democratic ideals.
Despite its radical implications, open spectrum can coexist with traditional exclusive licensing.
There are two mechanisms to facilitate spectrum sharing: unlicensed parks and underlay. The first
involves familiar allocated frequency bands, but with no user given the exclusive right to transmit.
A very limited set of frequencies have already been designated for unlicensed consumer devices,
such as cordless phones and wireless local area networks, but more is needed. The second approach
allows unlicensed users to coexist in licensed bands, by making their signals invisible and non-intrusive
to other users. Both open spectrum approaches have great value, with the specifics depending
on how technology and markets develop. Both should be encouraged. The risks are minimal, while
the potential benefits are extraordinary.
If the US Government wants to put in place the most pro-innovation, pro- investment, deregulatory,
and democratic spectrum policy regime, it should do everything possible to promote open spectrum.
Spectrum: The New Wireless Paradigm* By Kevin Werbach, october 2002.
Free Software By Sam Williams. Salon, december 18, 2002
> FCC Backs Open
Spectrum? november 1, 2002
> smart mobs: new uses of
mobile media. october 3, 2002
a culture of ubiquity. july 15, 2002
> streamer: pirate radio
for the digital age. july 4, 2002
> gnu radio: software
defined radio. june 27, 2002