Super Wifi and Unlicensed Spectrum: “Spectrum Condos”

by on March 19, 2013 · 614 comments

There is renewed interest in unlicensed spectrum as the FCC approaches the TV white space issue (again). Tim B. Lee reports on some of the unlicensed supporters,

Activists at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, TX, built a free wireless network to help publicize the power of unlicensed “white spaces” technology. The project is part of a broader campaign to persuade the FCC not to auction off this spectrum for the exclusive use of wireless carriers.

Unlicensed spectrum for high-powered devices has been called Super Wifi (“wifi” in this context is used loosely; Super Wifi is a PR term and has nothing to do with the wifi technical standard). Frankly, there are many reasons to be cautious about assigning more unlicensed spectrum, especially given the confusing information out there about the technology. (For instance, despite a popular rumor, Super Wifi would not provide free Internet access to everyone with a device, as Matt Yglesias and Jon Brodkin point out.)

The unlicensed/licensed debate is several years old and often technical. I won’t rehash the old issues here, but there is a point I’d like to highlight about the nature of unlicensed spectrum: In spectrum assignments, you generally want to create “apartments, not condos.” Like most, I favor unlicensed spectrum under certain circumstances. However, we should be aware of the rigidity unlicensed spectrum imposes on future reassignments.

If you’re a property developer in a city and you want to raze and build on property occupied by a residential high-rise, you want that high-rise to be an apartment complex, not a condominium building. With apartments, you can bargain with the property management company and, with time, all tenants can be cleared out. Not so with condos, many urban developers are finding. Even if most condo owners in a building are contacted and compensated for leaving, the remaining owners have an effective veto over the new development.

Similarly, unlicensed device users can veto the future reassignment or transfer of the spectrum they occupy. Smartphone and satellite radio users, for example, have no veto ability–they are “apartments,” essentially leasing space from a spectrum “owner.” Like real property, you really need small-numbers bargaining to transfer and lease spectrum for its highest-valued use. Many unlicensed “owners” in a band creates a tragedy of the anticommons. Control over devices drives most unlicensed spectrum advocates mad, but it is also what permits technology upgrades and relatively fast spectrum transfers. (Mobile phones with 1G (analog) are long gone. Not so with old baby monitors, cordless phones, and garage door openers, which are all unlicensed. There’s no spectrum manager to clear these old devices out.) Once unlicensed devices populate a band, the spectrum almost certainly cannot be transferred and used for other technologies.

The time will come when–not if–a brand new social need arises that requires substantial amounts of spectrum as an input. If the FCC wanted to reassign spectrum in the future for, say, driverless car technology, Super Wifi bands are out of the question. It’s simply impractical to locate all the (mobile and transient) high-powered Super Wifi devices that will be using the band, install a new radio, and move them to another band. Even if you could identify most of them, people who buy or sell devices–many of whom will be powerful institutions like public safety, transportation, and tech companies–will have built business models based on the unlicensed spectrum. Entrenched users will not relinquish their spectrum easily after making substantial investments in the technology.

Ideally, you want a spectrum manager that can be compensated to discontinue services or move their users to another band when better uses come along. This is not to say we should not have “Super Wifi” or other unlicensed bands. But we should hesitate before creating these spectrum condos, particularly in the valuable bandwidth under 1 GHz. By permitting unlicensed operators, future spectrum reassignment of unlicensed bands moves from the marketplace to lengthy administrative resolution* by the FCC and NTIA because of the fragmented and numerous users–which is what the Congress and the FCC have tried to avoid for the past 20 years with auctions and secondary markets. Instead of negotiation and compensation, the reassignment becomes a shouting match between interested parties and their lobbyists. In the end, consumers typically lose.

*Recent history is illuminating. Just look at LightSquared’s dealings with Inmarsat (apartments) versus GPS users (condos). Conflicts with GPS users killed LightSquared’s new nationwide LTE network because there were too many GPS parties to bargain with. For another example, observe how NextNav is running into interference problems with WISPs (condos).

Previous post:

Next post: