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Infrastructure // PC & Servers
01:16 AM

Running Out of Airwaves?

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski told a wireless industry conference this week that "the biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis." We're running out of airwaves.

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski told a wireless industry conference this week that "the biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis." We're running out of airwaves.That's impossible, isn't it?

I get the idea that demand is skyrocketing; Genachowski said that the monthly average for wireless consumption in 2008 was six petabytes, and that forecasted usage will be 400/month by 2013. So that buzzing you get when you wave your iPhone next to a radio transmitter? Multiply it a zillion times over.

But exploiting the spectrum isn't a technical challenge as much as a bureaucratic one. Scientists can create devices that run on 700 MHz just like they do on 450, or find ways to use X-rays to send emails and carry voice conversations. The sky's the limit (pun intended). The limitation is that real estate in the atmosphere isn't just regulated and monitored by the government, but also sold by it. You and I own the airwaves, it turns out, so our leaders auction off bits on our behalf. It's a lucrative business, and the more infrequent the auctions, the more valuable the sales. We collectively benefit, both from the money received for the licenses, as well as the role government plays in making sure various MHz don't get filled with hate speech or literally fry our brains.

But is this artificial scarcity approach right for the long-term?

It works in the branding world, or did up until the recent public musings about the Internet and its impact on abundance (give stuff away, and eventually money will materialize from somewhere). More substantively, consider how great brands create de facto standards: Apple didn't benefit from any agreed standards or usage requirements, yet it delivered proprietary standards for digital music (Microsoft did the same for OS).

One could make the case that nobody owns the air (the Radio Act of 1927 notwithstanding), and that there's better innovation, commerce and money to be had letting people freely exploit the electromagnetic spectrum. Maybe we remedy the airwave shortage with opening it up to competition, fair and square, and then everyone makes more money on the back-end. Sometime. Somehow.

What's your frequency on this one?

Jonathan Salem Baskin writes the Dim Bulb blog and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, coming in November.

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