Why spectrum should matter to you

Those who are genuinely interested in where the whole Internet “thing” is going would be wise to read this thoughtful article by Clay Shirky on the matter of broadcast spectrum. For those of you unfamiliar with Clay, he’s one of the real deep water fish in the Internet world, and this is the most understandable essay on this complex subject that I’ve ever read.

Why understand about spectrum? Because this is where the biggest threat to broadcasting-as-we-know-it exists, and it’s where the next generation of Internet business developments will take place.

Spectrum is currently valuable because it is scarce, and it is scarce because it is treated like property. Even if novel uses of spectrum can be shown not to interfere with the current broadcast model, evidence that spectrum can be transmuted from a property-rights model to being treated as a public good might not be welcome, in part because it could call into question the hold the broadcasters have on spectrum. This is especially true now that over 85% of television viewers get their TV from cable and satellite, not from traditional broadcast.

The potential threat to spectrum holders is clear. We have a set of arguments for creating and enforcing property rights for things that aren’t actually property. We usually apply this artificial scarcity to intellectual property — patents, trademarks, copyright — and grant these rights to protect certain forms of abstract work or communications.

The rationale for all these rights, however, is to reward their creators for novel intellectual work. This does not offer much relief to spectrum holders seeking a justification for continued Government enforcement of scarcity. None of the current holders of spectrum have created any of it — a wavelength is a physical property that cannot be created or destroyed. If spectrum can be regulated without the traditional licensing régime, it’s hard to argue that the Government has a compelling interest in creating and enforcing scarcity.

Clay uses WiFi as an example of unlicensed and unregulated spectrum, and what can be accomplished when spectrum is treated as a public good as opposed to property. This argument is important to understand, because the whole mood of communications is moving away from regulated scarcity to the endless possibilities of wireless communications in the broadcast bands.

I have said it often here. Man wants to be God, and this is such a fundamental core of human nature that business catering to it will always be successful. We’re locked into the dimensions of time and distance, and we’re always striving to find ways out of our prison. Knowledge is another limiting factor, and it’s here that wireless communications offer release. Imagine having unrestricted access to the knowledge of the Internet wherever and whenever you wish.

This is why I am so emphatic in my belief that the only thing of value to local broadcasters is their content, and that companies who find content-distribution vehicles beyond their broadcast tower are those who will survive in the long run.

Read Clay’s essay carefully. It’s your future.

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