The good news is that Tuesday’s New York Times article by Brian X. Chen actually questions claims by the big cellcos — AT&T and Verizon mostly — that we’re running out of spectrum. It edges away from the easy analogy that electromagnetic spectrum is real estate.
The spectrum-as-real-estate analogy is so pervasive that we tend not to think about it. We talk about low frequency spectrum as “beachfront property,” because it is thought to be more valuable. (It is not much attenuated by walls, leaves and air the way higher frequency spectrum is.) We reify that a company can “own” a given frequency band the way we own — and buy and sell — real estate. We say spectrum is congested by increased traffic and we’re running out of space.
The pervasive misunderstanding of how we use — and could use — the electromagnetic spectrum was eloquently addressed in layman’s terms by The Myth of Interference, a 2003 Salon article by David Weinberger that I wish every reporter, legislator and wireless policy “expert” would read. The Myth charts a sensible path towards a physically veridical, technology based approach to the use of the electromagnetic spectrum. Central to The Myth’s argument is the fact that current policy, based on the licensing of frequency bands, was shaped by the technology of the 1920s. Today, as The Myth explains, the technologies of wireless communications are vastly expanded, but regulations are still stuck in the 1920s. And the incumbents want to keep them there.
The bad news is that the New York Times article doesn’t cleanly separate myth and analogy from physics and technology. The article mixes literal, physical reality with analogies that foster certain monopoly-preserving conclusions. The article fails to distinguish which is which. It talks about “slices of radio waves,” it confuses licensing with ownership and it treats Wi-Fi offload as if Wi-Fi were an alternative to the use of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Even the headline — “Carriers Warn of Crisis in Mobile Spectrum.” — isn’t what the story is about. A more accurate headline would have said, “Experts Question Carrier Spectrum Claims.” The lede is buried in the fourth paragraph: “But is there really a crisis?” The article misses key specifics, such as the fact that in the (now failed) 36 billion dollar T-Mobile merger with AT&T, the spectrum was valued at $6 billion, and the fact that only about 10% of cell towers have fiber optic backhaul, which means that cellular data capacity can be limited by old DS-1, DS-3 and microwave backhaul technology rather than by wireless electromagnetic receiver overload.
The result is journalism that’s (perhaps unconsciously) shaped by the industry the journalism purports to question. It is as if the cellcos claim 1+1=3, while a few dissident experts — Martin Cooper, David Reed and me — protest that it is 2, then the true answer must lie somewhere in the range between 2 and 3.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that the Times is beginning to explore the idea that the spectrum-as-real-estate analogy is a regulatory fiction.
The core of the story is whether or not spectrum is a rival good. A rival good is something that when it’s used by one party can’t be used by another. The cellcos say it is. Current FCC regulation does too. But David Reed has repeatedly pointed out that physics — our understanding of physical reality — says otherwise. The article paraphrases him: electromagnetic spectrum is not finite. Not finite. In other words, infinite.
The article also paraphrases Reed saying, “Arguing that the nation could run out of spectrum is like saying it was going to run out of a color.” I explained to Brian Chen that spectrum is literally the exact same energy as light, not some far-fetched analogy. I explained that visible light is a subset of the electromagnetic spectrum. And that a frequency band is not *analogous* to a color, it is literally precisely the same electromagnetic energy as a color, only at a frequency that is outside of the capacity of our visual system. Some of this is captured in the 3.5 minute video that accompanies the article. The video also labels spectrum a public good. Yay!
In the end, the article misses the opportunity to do a “so what.” My so what would be this: Let’s totally rethink regulation in light of today’s technology. If the New York Times said it, I’d jump up and down in celebration.
I won’t belabor the article further. Given all the other reporting on the so-called spectrum crisis, it’s a net win for us reality-based folks. But I will observe that if the New York Times — the most respected news source in the United States of America today — is doing this kind of job on issues my colleagues and I actually do understand, we can be pretty durn sure what it is doing on the war, the economy, health care, education, crime, the climate; on all the big stories of our day. No wonder we’re in such deep shit.
[Note: NYT reporter Brian X. Chen also questioned carrier claims about caps on data usage a couple of months ago. He's doing a good job on a tough assignment in a harsh environment. When he calls, let's help!]