February 14, 2007  ·  Lessig

So these are taking longer than expected, and now I’ve added a topic I didn’t originally flag (though in 1984-fashion, I’ve hidden this fact by simply changing the original blog entry).

The subject here is spectrum policy. The argument is that we deregulate spectrum. “Deregulate” not in the sense that we auction spectrum. Auctions require a gov’t created property right; that’s a form of spectrum regulation. “Deregulate” in the sense that we set off large swaths of spectrum for unlicensed use. Congress has made this impossible in the short term for any significant chunk of spectrum. But we do have an important opportunity to set free “white space.”

The argument might be best introduced with the following hypothetical:

Imagine the government nationalized the hotdog market, and then sold to the highest bidder the “right to sell hotdogs” at in a particular place for a particular period of time. These rights — the right to sell hotdogs — could be structured to be a kind of property. The market would thus allocate them to the highest valued use. And the initial sale would raise lots of money for the federal treasury.

Are you in favor of that? And if not, then why are you in favor of spectrum auctions? “Because certain uses require regulation,” you say. But then why not push towards uses that don’t require regulation?

Download or stream the video here (27 minutes).

Watch it on Google video below:

My argument builds upon a point I made in a piece published in Cato’s Regulation. You can download that piece here.

  • Jake

    Even if incumbents win and the FCC adds no commons frequencies, it may still be profitable for companies making radio devices to buy frequencies and allow anyone who buys the device to use the frequency like it was in the commons. Chances are that parts of the new radio devices will be patented anyway, so the radio companies will be used to dealing with monopolies.

  • Jake

    Even if incumbents win and the FCC adds no commons frequencies, it may still be profitable for companies making radio devices to buy frequencies and allow anyone who buys the device to use the frequency like it was in the commons. Chances are that parts of the new radio devices will be patented anyway, so the radio companies will be used to dealing with monopolies.

  • http://thegreateric.com Eric

    I’m not sure your hypothetical is the best, since that’s exactly what goes on in New York City at least. Hot Dog street vendors pay a license to the city for the right to set up shop on particular street corners and exclude competitors from that corner. And presumably the license for high foot traffic areas like Times Square is more expensive than the license for lower traffic areas.

    It is quite literally a “right to sell hot dogs” at a particular place and for a particular length of time.

  • anonymous

    . . . or the medallion / “right” to drive a taxi in NY.

  • lessig

    My hypo is really really a hypo about a national law. Lots of sense in local contexts.

  • A. Anon

    Lessig, you really have no idea on how WiFi works? At least that is the impression from your video, which is full of technical errors…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    I have been following the “spectrum” posts and responding to them on the Technology Liberation Front webpage. The argument is made by the deregulation crowd that the radio spectrum would miraculously be more efficient if it were to be placed in private ownership. These assertions are absurd.

    1. The radio spectrum is already in private ownership. The government owns it in trust for the American people. The government should manage the spectrum just as any corporation would.
    2. The argument is made that corporations, fundamentally, are more efficient than government. That is hog wash. Large corporations, like government become bloated and inefficient. Ford and General Motors are going down the tubes. Microsoft is missing deadlines. I would even advocate that the introduction of HDDVDs was delayed by approximately eight years because the content industry was bickering over standards.
    3. The argument is made that the FCC is over-regulating private enterprise. This is a ludicrous. Much of the regulation that is supposedly imposed by the FCC is really the result of private industry “requesting” this through lobbying. The FCC unfortunately is not truly an independent body representing the interests of the American people.
    4. Along the lines of over-regulation, what would happen if the radio spectrum were placed into private ownership? I would assume that the corporations owning the spectrum pieces would get together and form an industry association. I further surmise that this industry association would then reinvent all the “regulatory” responsibilities currently held by the FCC to assure an orderly operation of the spectrum. I don’t see much point in trading one regulatory body for another.
    5. Those advocating the privatization of the radio spectrum have, for the lack of a better term, a very ideological view of “property”. In the case of real estate it is easy to define the property as being a particular lot. However, radio waves are not really bound (Signal strength does diminish by distance) they can go almost anywhere. We therefore have a lot of slippery slope issues. One can not simply buy the radio spectrum 97.3FM. What they would have to buy would be a signal radius of lets say 50 miles. But the signal may go over 50 miles. A person may buy a station at 52 miles and transmit into the others territory. Also, lets say you buy 97.3FM, someone could assert that they have ownership of 97.4 FM and start transmitting thereby interfering with 97.3FM signal.

  • http://www.goodship.net/ zuzu

    http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2003/03/12/spectrum/
    The myth of interference
    Internet architect David Reed explains how bad science created the broadcast industry.
    By David Weinberger

    There is NO (zero, zilch!) need for the FCC. David P. Reed covered this ground a long time ago. Dismantle the FCC and let software defined radio (e.g. GNUradio) take over.

  • http://lucychili.blogspot.com jh

    http://www.pff.org/events/upcomingevents/m2zapp.asp
    This event will cover spectrum issues, but is unlikely to focus on the need for commons spectrum and public access for participative media.

  • Anonymous

    David Reed might have been a professor of computer science, but in that case it would have been good if he had talked to his former collegues in electrical engineering before giving interviews to Salon. Because interference do exitst, even with smart, cognitive radios (why do they else have to be smart?). Spectrum is a scarce resource (why do we else have mandate the behaviour of the polite radios?) And a spectrum regulating body is necessary (otherwise say goodby to satellite weather imaging, satellite communication, space science, and to radio recievers with a battery life time of more than 6 hours…)

  • Jay Carlson

    I’m not sure I can do better than qtyracks in arguing against pure deregulation. What better metaphor can I get than spammers?

    I dunno. On the one hand, I’m in a locale where I can barely get consumer 802.11g to go twenty feet because everyone is crammed into this tiny little ISM band. On the other hand, Reed is offering a much broader landscape, but it’s based on perpetual warfare between implementations: who can nibble the most bandwidth away from competitors in a particular chunk of spacetime.

    In theory I have a nice 108Mbps network that spams channels 1 and 11 for the extra bandwidth, and it did work well on that other coast. In my current reality, I can barely get from one room to another at 24Mbps, and turning on resistance to interference takes priority over any kind of “turbo”.

    Oh, and some joker could shut all of this down within a quarter-mile with about 30 bucks of parts. Good thing Radio Shack has dumbed down.

  • Jon

    I just wanted to comment that I love this format! These are fantastic videos. Thanks!

  • Ben Miller

    I like the video. It’s well done. Lessig, you take something that is difficult to explain and explain it quite clearly, as you often seem to do. But I have to agree, the hotdog analogy just doesn’t work for me. I thought about it for a while and came up with this reason why:

    I think the analogy distracts more than it reinforces your point. I suspect that most people can grasp the idea that something ought to be regulated and something ought not to be. Clearly hotdogs should not be. But your argument is different. You are saying that spectrum should be partially regulated and partially unregulated (ignoring the other talk of Reed). I think that is the thing people need to be convinced of. I suspect that most people see it very black and white: either regulate spectrum or don’t. So I suspect people see your hotdog analogy and agree with it, but then easily dismiss it because they can think of reasons why they think spectrum should at least be partially regulated. Instead I think an analogy that has a mix of regulation and deregulation would be better. Unfortunately I am unable to come up with any such analogy, but maybe you can. Or maybe an example of something that was regulated and no longer is? Either way the hotdog analogy is just too simple and obvious that people may get fixated on how it is so different and miss the similarity that you are trying to draw.

    The other thing that I thought distracted from your point, although less so, is the part about the FCC’s style being more communistic than free market. What was the shift in the FRC/FCC from the command/control style? How did they implement Coase’s suggestion eventually? It’s not apparent to me that it’s any different now than it was in the 1930’s; the government still licenses “who can use what frequency when.” I think you need make your point more clearly or else it suffers from its ambiguity.

    Also, I’m both curious and dismayed by the other posts. What do you think about Jake’s post? Is it possible that Cisco or Netgear may buy some UHF channel and make their own proprietary WiFi-like device to work solely on it? What do you think about that? It seems possible, but probably not ideal to the consumer. Especially since I imagine some subscription fee for the channel’s use (like a cell phone). Or do you think it will be mostly things like Qualcomm’s MediaFLO product that will get the UHF channels? What does Verizon and the like stand to benefit from UHF other than more bandwidth (read: more data throughput) and denial of access from competition (where competition is free like WiFi), if anything?

    And A. Anon’s post is just annoying. If Lessig doesn’t understand WiFi, where was he wrong? What are all these technical errors?

    Same sort of thing with Steve R. You say in point 1 that “The radio spectrum is already in private ownership.” And then in point 4: “what would happen if the radio spectrum were placed into private ownership?” Make up your mind. Your points are contradictory. In fact, I have to wonder if you even watched the video at all based upon some of the things you are arguing. But then again, I honestly do not think that your post is clear to me at all, so who knows.

    Overall there seems to be a lot of confusion here and everywhere else over what WiFi can and not do, what it does and does not do. And the article about Reed only seems to confuse rather than elucidate. Yes interference does exist. Yes there are limits to how much information can be stuffed into any given spectral band (bandwidth and data rates are related and the relationship is well defined since the 1920’s work by Nyquist, et al’s work on Information Theory.) And when Reed makes use of examples like camera obscura it just makes it worse; here he is talking about getting not only spectral information (color) but also spatial information (something like: which pixel is which color?). Antennas are not capable of getting spatial information so I don’t follow the connection. But the point here isn’t to understand all the engineering of WiFi, although some is needed. The point is that the technology works and it will benefit from having “beachfront” property in the UHF band. So the question is, how much understanding of WiFi is needed? I think Lessig did a good job of giving enough information about WiFi without confusing his audience. (Although I think it could benefit from a more clear version of the United States frequency allocation map, it’s impossible to read and confusing, but maybe that is the point.)

    And yes Jay, any “joker” can jam any signal he wants (whether or not it is regulated). But I see that as an excuse for deregulation. For if more spectrum was available for the “commons” it is harder to jam the entire common spectral region effectively.

  • A. Anon

    WiFi devices does not (in general) negotioate on how to best utilise the spectrum. The user has to set the frequency allocations within the ISM-band for himself. So WiFi does not make the point that a self-allocating system works “asonishingly well” – on the contrary: it often does work very badly in high-density areas such as inner cities. Which also makes the following points in Lessigs presentation unvalid.

  • http://lucychili.blogspot.com jh

    Property is not a good fit for spectrum. It feels more like traffic?
    We manage to have road regulations without worrying about sickles and markets.
    The idea of one person owning or controlling access to a stretch of road is only workable in niche situations. Generally for the flow of people and goods it is useful to have a system for sharing space.
    I think it would be good to think carefully about conflating property and market with USA values and sharing with communism and control.
    Freedom is promoted as an American value.
    Freedom depends on sharing an opportunity.
    Freedom for all to participate is the opposite of an individual property ownership choice.
    Each time the USA chooses a property model for deciding how to mediate, it chooses to give right of way to one individual entity (with money) over the freedom of the USA community.
    Both freedom and property values are/have been American.
    Broadcast businesses work best from a model which provides a single source of control and broadcasts to many.
    Distributed communities require the right to participate.
    Two different business models related to the technologies which enable them.
    Managing right of way in a way which does not block and prejudice participation is the balance needed to retain freedom.
    Property is a right for one.
    Lots of law is being debated as property metaphor.
    Lots of legislation is being drafted that provides individual control.
    Freedom in the USA does not currently seem to be defended as a civil right for all, just a purchased right for one.
    How does USA law legislate to provide a freedom to participate?

  • http://lucychili.blogspot.com jh

    would be interesting to see the perspectives at this event..
    http://www.pff.org/events/upcomingevents/030107usfreverseauction.asp