Open Spectrum

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= Open Spectrum Reform. The spectrum available for broadcasting, cellular telephony, wireless broadband, etc.. is not scarce, but kept scarce by legislation based on outdated technological realities. The Open Spectrum reform movement intends to change this.

URL = (Open Spectrum FAQ)

(This entry mostly applies to the situation in the U.S.A.)


"We are undergoing a paradigm shift from the property regimen to the new commons world and beyond (...) in which we may turn the regulatory authority over to the device itself"

- Dewayne Hendricks


Favoring an Open Spectrum means:

(1) open applications: users should be able to download software from anywhere and use it on their communication devices without restriction

(2) open devices: users should be able to use any communication device that meets the technical requirements for connecting to the network no matter who made the device

(3) open wholesale services: third-party resellers should be able to buy wholesale bandwidth from auction winners

(4) open network access: other networks should be able to connect to the 700-MHz network

Summarized from Robert Cringely, at

See also the Wikipedia article at


We suggest starting with David Weinberger's excellent Re-framing Open Spectrum!

The rationale for Open Spectrum reform

"The notion that the airwaves need to be meted out carefully is based on the fact that, in the early 1900s, radio equipment was easily thrown off when signals of the same frequency from more than one source overlapped. We call this phenomenon “interference." In fact, the waves sent out by different transmitters don’t interfere with each other at all. They pass right through each other unchanged. Interference occurs in the receiver, when its antenna picks up multiple signals of the same frequency and has trouble telling them apart. In other words, interference is a function of the intelligence designed into the receiver, not a function of what happens in the airwaves—and receivers can be a lot more intelligent than they were 90 years ago. Recent advances are enabling radio signals to be coded digitally so they can easily be separated from each other. No longer is there a need to chop the airwaves into distinct regions of frequency and geography." ( )

Robert Horvitz:

"“Open Spectrum” is based on the realisation that technology can reduce or even eliminate the need for governments to micro-manage wireless communication.

In different contexts it can be viewed as:

- an ideal of freedom in the use of radio frequencies - a critique of traditional spectrum management - a possibility arising from trends in radio design

For almost a century, governments have imposed detailed limits on the use of radio – who can transmit or receive what frequencies and waveforms, at what power levels, in which locations, for what purposes. Licenses summarise these controls for specific users or “stations”. State control of radio usage goes far beyond what is accepted for other media, (speech, publishing, photography, internet etc.). Yet most people accept strict rules for radio in the belief that they are necessary to prevent chaos and interference.

However, during the past 20 years, smarter radios have been developed that go a long way toward solving problems which once seemed to require government intervention. Cordless phones can automatically scan a band to select an unoccupied channel. Cellular GSM phone networks dynamically assign frequencies when handsets are activated, and set signal levels to the minimum needed for an adequate link. Smart receivers can separate signals that are coded differently even when they occupy the same channel. Smarter radios tend to combine ease of use with better link quality and support for novel applications. The combination of these attributes has fueled explosive growth in public demand for wireless devices. And the spread of these devices dramatically improves economic efficiency, productivity, personal safety, convenience and social cohesion.

But the wireless boom also drew attention to the fact that regulations designed to protect “dumb” radio equipment from interference create artificial shortages of frequencies. Recent surveys have shown that static frequency assignments can result in band utilisation rates as low as five to ten percent. A few radio experts began making this point in the mid-1990s, laying the groundwork for Open Spectrum to emerge as an alternative model in spectrum management. But it was the US Federal Communication Commission’s 1985 decision to allow new communication technologies in the bands for unlicensed Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) devices that jump-started this evolution.

Communication in the ISM bands must tolerate interference. This is in contrast to traditional spectrum management, where the aim is to prevent interference. Protection against interference is normally achieved by not letting other transmitters use a licensed channel within a geographic “protection zone”. But Wi-fi – a technology that developed in the ISM bands – showed that large numbers of people can share a band, without specifically assigned channels, if everyone uses low power and waveforms designed to soften the effects of interference. With no protection zone, there is no technical justification for licensing Wi-fi. And indeed, most countries now exempt Wi-fi from licensing, as shown by our global survey.

Wi-fi is often cited as Open Spectrum’s “proof of concept”, validating “unlicensed commons” as a practical paradigm in frequency management. However, it is also important to note that Open Spectrum is a much broader concept than Wi-fi. At the same time, Wi-fi works as well as it does because of widespread voluntary acceptance of the IEEE 802.11b standard, and because of mandatory processes of “type approval” (in which equipment is approved by regulators for unrestricted sale if it conforms to certain parameters, particularly as to radiated power and frequency use). Thus, unlicensed is not the same as unregulated. Open Spectrum supporters seem split by this distinction, with some arguing for complete deregulation, and others (like ourselves) embracing type approval as preferable to licensing.

Some people think radio technology is evolving inevitably toward a future where traditional forms of regulation will be impossible. Billions of Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) tags are likely to spread around the world in the coming decade; they will be as hard to control as an epidemic. “Software-defined radio” is another challenge. More and more radio functions that had been performed by hardware are likely to be implemented in software in the future. If this software is open source, or can be modified or replaced after purchase, “type approval” processes are undermined.

What then? Optimists envision a post-regulatory future where Darwinian competition in the marketplace will yield the “fittest” devices – equipment immune to interference and capable of automatically finding and exploiting any morsel of under-used spectrum when needed. Just as the largest animals tend to be placid vegetarians, the users of powerful radio equipment may choose not to cause interference, for the benefit of all. Widely supported standards and protocols for automating co-operation and “politeness” seem essential for the success of this scenario. If some spontaneously self-organizing system can be devised for quickly imposing penalties on interferers, everyone could feel more confident in such a future.

Our own goals are more modest. We would like to eliminate governments’ role in granting permission for individuals and organizations to use radios harmlessly, particularly in developing countries. To state that positively, we want to unleash the benefits of wireless communication for economic and social development in the places that have the most to gain. As the need diminishes for treating radio with special strictness, to counteract the technology’s shortcomings, radio regulation should converge toward the rules that apply to the most common medium - ordinary human speech. It may take a while to get there, but progress along the way will be marked by economic growth and improvements in the quality of life." (

Regulating the Open Spectrum

John Wilson proposes a synthetic approach to spectrum reform:

"Whilst agreement upon the shape of a new regulatory paradigm remains fugitive, there is nevertheless international debate upon the issues of spectrum reform to facilitate an adaptive regulatory environment that is fit for purpose for the digital era.

Government policy in many countries - notably the UK- has affirmed a "de-regulatory" agenda and the use of market mechanisms (auctions and spectrum trading) to rationalize spectrum allocation and rights; and this may be related to the wider "de-regulatory" agenda of government for market-led policy solutions.

A strong advocacy voice has emerged for a "commons" or "open spectrum" approach, following the explosion of licence-exempt Wi-Fi as a mass phenomenon and proof of the innovation dynamic and the social and economic spin-offs of an open approach to spectrum.

The need for a synthesis.

Whilst there has been tendancy to polarize positions between the "property" and the "commons" models, international debate has focussed upon the need for a mixed, evolutionary approach to spectrum management policy.

Eli Noam has argued for a synthesis: "The areas of commonality, however, permit a synthesis. No, they require it. This is not the subject of idle academic speculation, but one of collective head-scratching on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific. All of us agree that an overhaul of the present system of allocating spectrum is a key task for the new economy. But what should take its place?"

Likewise the recent work of Kalle Konstan in the United States has articulated a continuum of spectrum rights beyond the binary property/commons model, with the novel recommendation for a score card system to reward spectrum efficiency and "good citizenship".

Balancing the economic, technological and public policy tools for spectrum management policy.

Beyond the question of technology and spectral efficiency, there is of course the issue of economic interests and social policy aims.

Spectrum rights and the weighing up of stakeholder interests is not a trivial matter, and the contended space of spectrum politics is not likely to be settled any time soon. We may note Ronald Coase's seminal paper The Federal Communications Commission (1959), credited with having ushered in the economistic property rights model for spectrum management policy, and his receipt of a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1991. Should we today posit a digital solution to our analogue problems, in the cybernetic scenario of an emergent and higher intelligence at the technological level of spectrum-sharing wireless devices? So that polite technical protocols embedded within the radio device itself win-out over the polite "social protocols" that are the recourse when attempting to negotiate a boundary dispute amongst contiguous radio users (-say in the event of two overlapping community broadband wireless systems in a rural area).

Critics have pointed out that current approaches to spectrum management policy have been focussed upon the economic policy tool, with a lesser regard to the technology and public policy tools." (

Status of licence-exempt spectrum use

John Wilson:

"Nevertheless the success of Wi-Fi has served to highlight the value of licence-exempt access to the radio spectrum and demonstrates social and economic pay-offs beyond an exclusive property rights model.

The FCC's Spectrum Policy Task Force (2002) provided a landmark report for spectrum policy reform and the institutionalization of licence-exempt rights of spectrum access in addition to the traditional command and control and exclusive property rights.

The UK regulator Ofcom has also paid increasing attention to licence-exempt spectrum use, from the 2005 Spectrum Framework Review to the "2006, year of the licence-exempt spectrum review". (

Summary of technical ‘Open Spectrum’ advances

by David Reed

“That's why what's happening now is so exciting. New radio transmission and networking technologies can squeeze more and more capacity out of the same spectrum. Some of the improvement comes from the shift from analog to digital transmission. For example, at least five digital TV shows can be broadcast on the same frequencies that a single analog channel now occupies. Similarly, digital cellular systems now carry three times as many phone calls as their analog predecessors. Even greater improvements in spectrum usage will come from a family of technologies that use the computational intelligence of today's wireless devices to allow multiple systems to "share" the same spectrum. The first of these, spread spectrum, replaces ancient high-power, undifferentiated narrowband transmissions with modern low-power, coded wideband. First described during World War II, spread-spectrum technology is already used in many cellular phone networks and in Wi-Fi, but newer systems promise even greater capacity improvements. A newly permitted method of using spectrum, ultrawideband, takes spread spectrum to its logical conclusion, operating at such low power that, subject to appropriate safeguards, it can underlie existing licensed services. That is, preexisting users of the same spectrum bands won't even know the ultrawideband transmissions are there. It will be as if we figured out a way for freight trains to travel on highways, with cars being none the wiser. Standards work is already under way to make ultrawideband the core technology for home entertainment networks, transferring video, audio, and photos among home PCs, stereos, high-definition televisions, and DVD players. And this is only the beginning. Another recent innovation, smart antennas, can focus adaptively to "lock into" a directional signal. Instead of radiating a signal in all directions equally, they figure out where a user is located and direct the radiation accordingly, reducing effective interference with other transmitters. Now, too, novel coding algorithms can take factors that traditionally hampered transmission, such as physical obstacles and motion, and use them to generate information that increases capacity. Perhaps the greatest technological gain in wireless capacity, however, will come from systems that work cooperatively. In a network architecture called a mesh, each RF receiver also acts as a transponder, retransmitting data sent by other devices in the network. In other words, every new device uses some of the network's capacity but also adds capacity back. Because a device in a mesh no longer needs to send information all the way to its ultimate destination (such as a cell tower), it can use less power. That allows the network to add more devices without any noticeable increase in interference. The approach resembles the distributed architecture of the Internet, in which every router can move traffic along an efficient path.

Software radios are a key enabler for all these advances. A software radio can receive and transmit across a broad range of frequencies; because it processes signals in software, it is far more adaptable than a traditional radio. In principle, a software radio originally used for cellular telephony could, for example, download new software and begin to receive broadcast television signals, or, more likely, access a network that uses a new cellular transmission protocol. Even more sophisticated "cognitive radios" would work cooperatively, analyzing other nearby radios and adapting on the fly to avoid other transmissions."

(The summary is by David Reed for the IEEE Spectrum magazine, but the article is no longer available at the original URL,

More Information

  1. Why Spectrum Is Not Property: The Case for an Entirely New Regime of Wireless Communications Policy. By Reed, David, 2001, at ."What we now know about the physics and architecture of RF communications contradicts the 'property' model of spectrum and this paper serves as a call to action to re-architect spectrum using a commons-based model."
  2. Yochai Benkler: Some Economics of Wireless Communications
  3. Kevin Werbach: Supercommons: the end of spectrum, fundamental essay


  1. A very useful briefing on open spectrum issues: Open Spectrum, New America Foundation, at
  2. Open Spectrum FAQ
  3. David Weinberger et al.: Why Open Spectrum Matters: "Open spectrum will do for wireless communications what the Internet has done for networking computers".
  4. Formatted chapter version of David Weinberger's Why Spectrum Matters
  5. Wikipedia article at


  1. Open Spectrum News: newsfeed only


  1. Open Spectrum Foundation
  2. Open Spectrum UK


  1. List of Open Spectrum Videos, compiled by John R. Wilson
  2. Watch Peter Cochcrane on the Wireless Revolution and Open Spectrum
  3. Watch Dewayne Hendricks on the Need for Open Spectrum Policy Reform

See also: Open Spectrum Videos