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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Lots of talk about Spectrum Policy 2.0. Don't hold your breath.

In the last couple of weeks I've been pitched with various concepts and philosophies about next-generation spectrum management.  The general view of some of the more jaded members of the industry is that "auctions don't work". 

So first we've had some suggestions about revenue-share models for spectrum - which I reckon is quite cool in concept but a nightmare to implement, given the consultative and legislative processes in place.

Next up, Lee Dryburgh has a cool interview with Sascha Meinrath who espoused the "White space" argument of using the spectrum more efficiently by "opportunistic access" and a more democratic view of the airwaves by which people can transmit without being beholden to major carriers or operators. Frankly I'm unconvinced - it sounds pleasingly democratic but overlooks minor issues like economies of scale in device and RF silicon production. It's difficult enough trying to make power-efficient phones with the fixed bands we have today, let alone ones that have extra cognitive & tuning capabilities to sneak broadband into other under-used slivers of spectrum. Let's see how the current white space initiatives fare before imagining "end-user empowerment" utopias.  (It is, incidentally, last orders for the eComm 2009 early bird registration tomorrow, so head over to book yourselves in).

Then, I saw in today's Sunday Times that apparently the UK government is contemplating giving away some of the "digital dividend" spectrum band after analogue-TV switch off rather than auctioning it. However, it will come with "strings attached" - basically that the new owners have to commit to doing a fibre rollout in tandem with the wireless deployment.

I've also mentioned before the idea of band-sharing of government spectrum (eg radar bands), in a similar fashion to the white spaces concept.

Overall, my view is that this is all very worthy, and we're starting to get the various technological enablers in place. But it's going to be an exceptionally long haul - 10 years or more - before we see any radical shift in the way that frequencies are allocated and used. I think there are distinct risks that any notional efficiency we gain by getting access to "wasted" spectrum, or by selling it in new ways, will instead just be wasted in a different way through fragmentation and poor user experience. 

I don't buy into the concept of "democratisation of the airwaves" for its own sake. In general, I think that market forces + occasional heavier fist of regulation seem to be doing OK at driving the current incumbents to improve accessibility and useability of mobile. A lot of the "net neutrality" rhetoric is tedious and irrelevant in sufficiently competitive markets. Maybe a bit less in the US, where there's more of an ideological belief that "openness" is somehow special, but at the end of the day I think there's something to be said for scale and large companies that have resources to iron out the complexities, as long as it's possible to hold them to account. 

That said, I think that 2.4GHz WiFi has been pretty good at providing a balance - having at least some unlicenced / light-licenced spectrum has helped keep the other licencees honest. It has, however, highlighted that large-scale "grassroots" deployments don't work.

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