For nearly 90 years, government regulation of the airwaves has been mostly a static affair. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acts as the principal regulator and enforcer of that once-mysterious phenomenon known as the electromagnetic spectrum.
But new communication technologies such as WiFi (Wireless Fidelity - or local wireless access networks) and digital television are forcing a useful debate: Should the spectrum be treated as private property, or more like a public common space? That question is up for discussion at the World Radio Conference now under way in Geneva.
Thankfully, the FCC is taking a sensible stance on the issue that includes a little of both approaches. That will result, it is hoped, in reduced government regulation and more-efficient use of the spectrum overall.
The US government started to regulate and license the spectrum's communications frequencies in 1927 to help broadcasters avoid interfering with each other's signals. Stations were given a specific part of the spectrum but didn't actually own it. Despite this, the idea of spectrum as property took hold, even though it's more accurate to think of "owners" as similar to the concessionaires in national parks.
Today, new technologies allow broadcasting on closer frequencies or the same frequency, giving the FCC more flexibility to grant additional access to the spectrum without granting "exclusive" rights to a frequency. That's less like property and more akin to public space. Demand for spectrum access is exploding, especially in the WiFi realm.
The FCC's task isn't easy. Entrenched licensees, such as phone companies, prefer the exclusivity of the current regulations. In fact, they have spent big bucks buying licenses for wireless products and building networks to compete with WiFi services.
Peter Tenhula, who co-chairs the FCC's spectrum task force, says it's helpful to think of spectrum as a raw material in manufacturing. Various radio, television, and wireless companies are layered on top of it. For each layer, the FCC must consider the regulatory problems that arise.
"We're trying to promote innovation and efficient use of the raw-material layer," Mr. Tenhula says. "You start realizing that the government can't keep up with changes at the higher layers, so you want to grant flexibility and let the market decide what's provided at the higher layers."
The FCC clearly is moving away from a decades-long government "command and control" legacy. Let's hope it heads toward a scheme with the minimum regulation required to serve the public interest.