Free Some Spectrum for Public

Why This Matters

Author Information
Honig, a B&C contributing editor, is chairman of audio-search-engine startup Volvoxx.

One lesson of Hurricane Katrina and the terrible chaotic aftermath is
this: The public needs direct, unlicensed access to cheap, robust
communications. The FCC can make this happen. A portion of the analog TV
spectrum that will be clawed back from broadcasters in the next several years
should be made license-free. Let the technical circus—that world of geeks,
entrepreneurs, companies and venture capitalists—seek profits by making a
mass market of super-duper WiMax gear. This will make future communications
blackouts, like that which helped to cripple rescuers in New Orleans, much less

WiMax (formally, radios compliant with the IEEE 802.16 specification) is
like Wi-Fi, but it goes five miles or more. Super-duper WiMax is my name for
WiMax of the future. With extra frequencies, it will work even better, as far
as distance, line-of-sight issues and obstacle penetration go.

Let's define robust. In the first post-disaster hours, or maybe weeks,
robust means wireless, battery-powered, two-way and ubiquitous. Wires fall
down; switching centers lose power. If the event is bad enough, police and fire
forces themselves will be closed out of affected areas. While powerful
broadcasters may be able to relocate their operations to unaffected areas,
without accurate local input, they will rely on outdated or incorrect
information. Particularly as a crisis breaks, it is critical to enable the
public to send as well as receive information. While public sector partnerships
like Smart NET (a project of New York public broadcaster WNET) will increase
the utility of already allocated spectrum to first responders, they still
represent a “big iron” approach. Small can be just as useful as big—think
of the pictures of rescuers in rowboats juxtaposed against the now-famous
pictures of those flooded New Orleans school buses. Lots of cheap
communications equipment that works , put into the hands of Joe Public, could
prove critical to the public's safety.

The mass market in gear that uses the license-free spectrum also used by
Wi-Fi means most big retailers carry GMRS radios—fancy walkie-talkies—that
cost $50 a pair. Unfortunately, they really don't work that well—yet.
Freeing more spectrum will make devices like these much more reliable. Benefits
from opening up more license-free spectrum will also include less expensive
phones and more useful car radios. But the public-safety argument alone should
be sufficient to move the FCC to act. Let's make sure that some of this
spectrum is kept in the license-free world, where it can directly benefit the
actual owners, We the People.