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Wireless Utopias 05: An Open Future for Spectrum?

The Science Museum's Dana Centre, London, 26 May 2005, 19h00-21h00

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” Oscar Wilde

ARCHIVE: See here for the Science Museum event web-page hosted by Cybersalon. Video of the event to be added soon.

The event is a registration event so please mail your registration request to and see Cybersalon for venue details plus the event website and wiki.

There will be Wi-Fi internet access at the venue - so don't forget your laptop and wireless card! and be sure to check in to the event wiki HERE

A unique debate upon the future of wireless communications and access to the radio spectrum

Cybersalon and Open Spectrum UK host a unique debate on the future of wireless communications and the strategic prospects for utilising the radio spectrum. A part of the Wireless London series.

The context for this second event in the Wireless Utopias series is the UK communications regulator Ofcom's Spectrum Framework Review. We explore "wireless utopias" from the Open Market to Open Spectrum.

Experts Roundtable

We commence our session with a Roundtable of distinguished international and UK experts, who explore the big issues of technology, regulation and society:

Provocateur: John Wilson (Open Spectrum UK)

Michael Marcus (former FCC; USA)
Dewayne Hendricks (Dandin Group; California, USA)
Onno Purbo (Indonesia)
Peter Bury (Ofcom)
William Webb (Ofcom)
Gordon Adgey (Broadband 4 Devon)
Peter Cochrane (Concept Labs)

This is a unique opportunity to learn about the experience, vision and strategy of our wireless technologists, pioneers, and policy-makers.


Followed by a Q&A session in which we explore the strategic agenda for wireless communications, locating spectrum reform in the UK within the wider international context.

Open Spectrum UK

Open Spectrum UK was convened in January 2005 in order to make a submission to the Ofcom Spectrum Framework Review. This submission was signed by 10 UK non-profit organisations, engaged in community wireless networking and communications policy issues. Open Spectrum UK is convened by John Wilson (co-founder and Julian Priest (co-founder

Open Spectrum UK has worked in collaboration with Open Spectrum Foundation, an advocacy project supported by the Open Society Institute. The support of distinguished international panellists for the Science Museum event was courtesy of their visit to London for the first board meeting of the Open Spectrum Foundation.

Open Spectrum UK acknowledges the support of the Open Society Foundation for the Wireless Utopias 05: An Open Future for Spectrum? event at the Science Museum's Dana Centre.

Open Spectrum UK plans a programme of activities to engage informed debate upon the future of spectrum access and communications rights in the UK.

Bearing points for debate: Towards an Open Spectrum policy?

Open Spectrum UK seeks to engage the public interest agenda for the exploitation of the strategic national resource of the radio spectrum.

We consider the following three bearing points as a starting point for our debate Wireless Utopias 05: An Open Future for Spectrum?

1 The Invisible Wealth of Nations

The reform of Spectrum Management Policy is one of the strategic issues for the Communications Agenda in the UK at present! Yet spectrum policy is below most people's radar- no pun intended; an arcane area of government policy that is shrouded in a legacy of opaqueness.

We may say that the radio spectrum is rather a part of The Invisible Wealth of Nations. We need to engage wider public debate on the future of this strategic national resource. For the definition and institutionalization of the rights of access to the radio spectrum is one of the keys to our future communications ecology.

2 Spectrum reform- from resource to commodity?

We are currently engaged in a period of global reform and transition in Spectrum Management Policy. In country after country, the regulatory state is playing catch-up with the revolution in digital (radio) technologies and is examining new ways of allocating rights of access and use for the radio spectrum.

There was a time a generation ago when the radio spectrum was dubbed "the invisible resource" (Levin). The radio spectrum was characterised as a common public good and a global resource. A strategic resource to be managed in the public interest.

Since the latter half of the 1990's the market model has been in the ascendancy, with the implementation of auctions (by the FCC) as a means of allocating spectrum access.

In its current Spectrum Framework Review, the UK regulator Ofcom proposes a bold new market approach to spectrum Management Policy (- with a focus upon liberalization, market mechanisms - auctions, and spectrum trading). This is a policy departure that is consistent with the UK's role as pacesetter of telecoms liberalization (with the privatization of BT in 1984).

Over the coming months Ofcom is due to issue its response to the submissions to the Spectrum Framework Review (and the related Spectrum Framework Review Implementation Plan).

International experts on spectrum reform view the UK as an exceptional case in the extent to which Ofcom propose using an economic policy tool for spectrum management.

Wireless has been to the fore of the digital revolution. Recent years have seen a dramatic phase of innovation in wireless communications, from the assumption of mobile cellular as an everyday communications medium to the deployment of 802.11 radio technologies -from the license-exempt Wi-Fi explosion to the current Wi-Max hype. A recent OECD report acknowledged UK and European community wireless networks (license-exempt 802.11 wireless) as innovators in broadband access. Wireless remains on the UK Nations and Regions agenda, as a strategic "community first mile" broadband solution.

We need to engage a sense of urgency about the future of wireless communications, as we move towards a new strategic framework for radio spectrum management in the UK.

On a cautionary note, we have the - unmentionable- fiasco of the 3G auctions in the year 2000 as an empirical case of the unintended consequences and adverse epochal impact of economic tools (auctions/game theory) in Spectrum Management Policy.

Above all we need to enable an open future of ubiquitous communications, bandwidth abundance and innovation; not limit ourselves to artificial scarcity, legacy interests, and the foreclosure of future options.

In this shift from spectrum-as-resource to spectrum-as-commodity, focussed debate upon the public interest has been for the greater part conspicuous by its absence.

3 Towards an Open Spectrum policy?

"I (previously) argued against the pure property rights system for the radio-magnetic frequencies that is advocated by some reformers, and also against the free-access "commons" approach advanced by others (…). The areas of commonality, however, permit a synthesis. No, they require it. This is not the subject of idle academic speculation, but one of collective head-scratching on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific. All of us agree that an overhaul of the present system of allocating spectrum is a key task for the new economy. But what should take its place?". Eli M. Noam: The Fourth Way for Spectrum, Financial Times, 29 May 2003

There is a growing consensus amongst spectrum policy experts upon the need to move beyond legacy property-based approaches to the management of the radio spectrum.

The "open market" and "open spectrum" (mistakenly conflated with "spectrum commons") have emerged as two strong poles of the current debate. Policy-makers are focussed upon a definition of the fundamental rights of access to the radio spectrum and an apportionment of licensed and licence-exempt means of access.

The FCC's Spectrum Policy Task Force Report is a landmark piece of policy revision towards a new paradigm in Spectrum Management Policy.

Eli Noam hits the nail on the head- we need a synthesis to move forward with. We need to move beyond the current rhetoric of "the market" and "the commons" to practical arrangements that reconcile the full range of stakeholder interests. Shall we reduce the spectrum agenda to a zero sum game, or are multiple strategies and winners possible? Beyond the rhetoric and the theology, is it possible to balance the technological, economic and public interest imperatives?

"Open Spectrum" is the discourse of an emerging international public advocacy movement for spectrum reform, inspired by a vision of public access and technology innovation.

Open Spectrum UK argues for a balance of the commercial and the public interest in access to and use of the radio spectrum.

The model for regulatory best practice in spectrum policy has yet to be developed! The Open Spectrum UK position advocates a mixed approach to Spectrum Management Policy, to embrace the full range of policy tools (- technology, economic and public policy) and to seek to balance the commercial and the public interest.

"Serving citizen-consumers in the digital age" is the mission statement that appeared on its website at the launch of the UK's new converged communications regulator Ofcom. And this should indeed provide our cardinal bearing point for the exploitation of the strategic national resource of the radio spectrum, "The Invisible Wealth of Nations". It is also a sobering thought to know that number one on the list of the six areas of statutory duty for Ofcom- duly enshrined in a commemorative stone at Riverside House- is "Ensuring the optimal use of the electro-magnetic spectrum"

We close with consideration of the words of Michael Powell, the Chair of the US government's Federal Communications Commission, prior to the launch of the FCC's Spectrum Policy Task Force report. Striking a note of both urgency and optimism, Powell's bold vision enjoins the need for a new paradigm in Spectrum Policy appropriate to the new digital wireless technologies and emerging markets and serving the benefit of all consumers- and once again a mixed approach to Spectrum Policy is the order of the day:

Consumers Deserve a New Spectrum Policy Paradigm: All consumers (…) deserve a new spectrum policy paradigm that is rooted in modern-day technologies and markets. We are living in a world where demand for spectrum is driven by an explosion of wireless technology and the ever-increasing popularity of wireless services. Nevertheless, we are still living under a spectrum “management” regime that is 90 years old. It needs a hard look, and in my opinion, a new direction. (…) Modern technology has fundamentally changed the nature and extent of spectrum use. So the real question is, how do we fundamentally alter our spectrum policy to adapt to this reality? The good news is that while the proliferation of technology strains the old paradigm, it is also technology that will ultimately free spectrum from its former shackles.

We are truly at a crossroads in the spectrum policy component of the digital migration. We must make critical decisions that balance the interests of existing spectrum users and potential new entrants to ensure that there is every opportunity and incentive to put spectrum to its highest and best use for the benefit of all consumers. It is important to remember that at the end of the day, we're not necessarily looking for one “right” path to our destination. There is no one-size-fits-all model for spectrum policy. We may well find that there are multiple approaches to the spectrum policy peak that should be pursued in different contexts in different spectrum bands over short, medium and long-term horizons.

The event is a registration event so please mail your registration request to and see Cybersalon for venue details.

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