Open Spectrum and Community Wireless Networks

by Dale Dougherty

In Release 1.0, "Open Spectrum: The Paradise of the Commons", [November 20, 2001], Kevin Werbach writes that wireless networks are pointing toward a new way of addressing the build-out of broadband infrastructure. Wireless networks may be the best way to deliver "last-mile" broadband access to end-users. But there are political hurdles.

Werbach says that open spectrum means "moving from centralized networks built by carriers to decentralized services based on smart transmitters and receivers."
Open spectrum challenges the spread spectrum (the privatized model for licensing use of the spectrum) in the same way that the Internet undermined the model of traditional communications networks, managed by the phone companies. He cites grassroots efforts in community wireless networking using 802.11b, quoting O'Reilly Network's Schuyler Erle. Schuyler, along with Rob Flickenger, developed and a community network for Sonoma County, California. Rob recently published with O'Reilly, "Building Wireless Community Networks". Congratulations to Rob and Schuyler on their efforts.

It's worth watching the growth of these community-based, wireless networking co-operatives and the expansion of public wireless access.
Adds Anthony Townsend of NYCWireless in the article:
"People are interested in being the networking equivalent of the open-source movement." Open spectrum and open source share a common vision of the network as public infrastructure.

Werbach does an excellent job of framing this issue, concluding that the "near-term outlook for open spectrum is grim" because spectrum stakeholders are more likely to act
to make sure that the government protects their interests. He believes the technology may eventually lead the way, if government regulation doesn't preclude it. Still, to ensure the public interest in the spectrum commons (and the innovation made possible because of it), we have to understand its potential and be prepared to speak up on its behalf.

What can be done to protect the spectrum commons?