Blown To Bits

Archive for the ‘Radio and television’ Category

White Space Drama

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Readers of B2B Chapter 8 (Bits in the Air) know about the dynamic of spectrum utilization. Incumbents who got use of the spectrum when technologies were less advanced and could use the resource less efficiently fight to maintain their control and to keep out any competition. They simply have no business reason to look to the public interest of letting others use what they regard to be their land — even though they don’t need as much of it as they used to — or for that matter to use any newly available land, if that would create competition for their business. This dynamic is a huge innovation-stifling force.

The issue of the day is what to do with the parts of the spectrum that will be freed up with TV broadcasting goes all-digital, which will happen in this coming February. The stakes are extremely high, and the level of distortion and rhetoric matches.

There are two basic possibilities; To auction the spectrum to private parties who would be licensed to use it, keeping out anyone else, in exactly the way television, radio, and cellular telephone incumbents now hold licenses to use certain spectrum bands; or to allow the spectrum to be used in an unlicensed fashion, in the way the use of little radio broadcasters and receivers, in the form of the wireless routers used for Internet access in homes and in coffee shops, emerged when a small sliver of spectrum was made available for unlicensed use some years ago.

As the federal government looks for ways to raise cash these days, the advocates for licensed use are claiming that an auction for licensed uses might raise as much as $24B, and that unlicensed use would cause all manner of interference with everything from television to the wireless microphones used in churches.

Advocates for unlicensed use counter that the amount that could be raised from an auction is grossly exaggerated and the interference claims are bogus. And that the economic benefits of allowing the development of unlicensed technologies are enormous. (“Unlicensed” does not mean “unregulated.” Those wireless routers have to stay in their spectrum band and under their power ceiling.)

A clear and sober rebuttal of the incumbents’ claims is in a report called “There is No Windfall in the White Space” by the New America Foundation. From the Summary:

As Alexander Pope opined, hope springs eternal: And exploiting this natural optimism are interest groups holding out the hope of a budgetary windfall for a cash-strapped Congress if only more spectrum can be auctioned at ever-higher prices. Now it is the turn of the digital television (DTV) “white space” to spur this forlorn hope. And this hope is as precisely forlorn as the economic analysis presented below concludes. A one-time auction of the guard band and other vacant channels in each local television market ‚Äì so-called “spectrum white space” ‚Äì would provide minimal revenue to the Treasury, while simultaneously ensuring that most of this unused “beachfront” spectrum will remain fallow, stifling the broadband services and innovation that could generate far more long-term economic activity.

Or you can read this brief report about Google co-founder Larry Page’s opinion, as he expressed it to Congress this week:

Calling claims of potential interference with existing broadcast stations “garbage” and “despicable,” Page charged that FCC field tests this summer had been “rigged” against spectrum-sensing technology that’s designed to enable exploitation of white space.

Google, as we blogged earlier, wants to promote a technology that would allow the same phone to use whatever cellular service is available. More than that, it would actually take bids, on the fly, from the services whose signal power in the area was strong enough, and place the call on whatever network made the best offer.

The level of rhetoric is quite high here. But it’s a once-for-all-time decision between having the government sell an asset to the highest bidder to cover a small part of its debt, or making it available for the public good through innovation by a much broader variety of private enterprises. The incumbents’ experts simply can’t be trusted, and the NAF report explains why.

Why Don’t Cell Phones Work Like Computers with Wireless?

Saturday, September 27th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

If you have a WiFi at home and in your office, you can carry your computer back and forth and the radio transmitter and receiver in the computer will connect to whichever network is available at the moment. Same if you take your laptop to Starbucks.

Why doesn’t your cell phone work that way? If you have a contract with T-Mobile and it works fine in your apartment, you may go to Starbucks and find you have no reception, even though everyone else there is happily chatting away on their phones. If they have Verizon and Verizon has a good signal at the Starbucks, they may not be able to use their phones if they come visit you at your home. The only recourse under these circumstances is to cancel one contract and take out another — hardly something to be done so you can make a call from Starbucks — or even more absurdly, to carry two phones. Why can’t someone make a phone that just latches onto whatever cellular service is available locally, and works out the billing in some seamless way?

Because of the way the radio spectrum is split up among the cell phone companies. It’s a regulatory, not a technical problem.

And Google is out to fix it. The company has filed a patent on technology that would work in the obviously right way, and it has asked the FCC to change the way the spectrum is allocated to make the necessary blocks of spectrum available.

This story is very much along the lines of Chapter 8, where we plead for deregulation that would stimulate innovation and vastly greater efficiencies in the way the spectrum is used. What we have is lockdown of the spectrum by a few incumbent stakeholders, who will, no doubt, raise all kinds of bogus technical claims about the problems with Google’s proposal in order to protect them from competition.

Free the White Spaces

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

We’ve devoted a lot of attention on this blog to Net Neutrality — the principle that Internet Service Providers should, like telephone companies, be barred from picking and choosing what service to provide to whom on the basis of the content of the information being delivered. There is another important information policy issue at stake now, and there is an opportunity for members of the public to weigh in on it directly.

“White space” is a part of the radio spectrum not being used by any broadcaster or other party licensed by the government to use it. As we explain in Chapter 8 of Blown to Bits — it’s really the main lesson of that chapter — the government “owns” the entire spectrum and historically has given exclusive licenses to the choicest parts of it to broadcast radio and television stations. Some years ago, a few white spaces were made available for unlicensed use — over the objections of the incumbent broadcasters, who raised alarms about the risk of interference with their broadcasts but, not coincidentally, had nothing to gain from allowing any competing uses of the spectrum. From that small deregulation, the now-ubiquitous wireless Internet devices emerged.

With the switchover to digital television, vastly greater portions of the spectrum are being opened up for possible reassignment to unlicensed uses. Once again, the broadcast industry is mongering fear about degraded television reception. Public interest groups — and certain private companies, Google in particular — are strongly lobbying for deregulation of these white spaces.

You can get a good sense of the issues from reading the last chapter of Blown to Bits. We urge you to support the move toward freeing up the white spaces by signing the (click on it) Free the Airwaves petition. Every vote counts!

The Paradox of Better Communication Technology

Monday, August 18th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Off at my summer home on a mountain lake, I am trying to read about anything but bits. So I’ve read two good books — Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Jules Tygiel’s Past Time. A history of secularism in America and a history of baseball. Unaccountably, each has a paragraph about the social consequences of improvements in communication technology. And the two paragraphs make closely related points. And the same issues are with us today, and relevant to the debates about whether the Internet can be a democratizing technology, what influence private carriers have over public understanding of the truth, and whether the unlimited availability of information will mean that we will in the end become more isolated through our ability to pick and choose the reality we wish to believe.

Jacoby discusses the influence of early radio on the secularism movement.

The farmers who rode fifty miles across the prairie to hear [famous agnostic orator Robert] Ingersoll in the 1890s were likely to be found in their own living rooms, listening to their own radios, in the 1920s — and radio sponsors did not spend their money to ¬†promote attacks on the God of the Bible. Freethought ideals did survive the disappearance of the freethought movement, but — unlike religious evangelism — they were ill suited, because of their emphasis on facts rather than emotions, to the new mass communications media. (p. 263)

Tygiel talks about how radio spelled the end of public scoreboards in cities, where crowds used to gather to see the telegraphed play-by-play of baseball games posted for public view.

The radio had, in a very important sense, democratized major league baseball, transmitting a more intimate sense of being at the game to millions who could never attend. Yet the process had become more familial or individualistic, replacing the communal experience with a more isolated one. Radio made baseball, more than ever, a national sport, but in a context far removed from earlier meanings of that term. (p. 73)

One of the big points of our book is that the digital explosion is not inevitably either good or bad. More capacity to communicate information does not automatically lead to greater enlightenment and greater democratic empowerment. The future depends on who has the power to control the communication media and how they use it. It’s important for us all to realize that nothing is inevitable — we need to understand, and to watch, what may seem to be struggles over obscure technical points, because the way the future will look may depend on choices being made today.

Frequency Hopping On Stage

Monday, June 9th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times reviews an 80-minute multimedia play about the discovery of spread-spectrum technology, now the basis of much wireless communication, by actress Hedy Lamarr and the avant-garde composer George Antheil. This is the strangest story of technological discovery I have ever heard. Blown to Bits just scratches the surface, but does give the basic outline. Lamarr, familiar with torpedo warfare because her first husband was an Austrian munitions maker, teamed up with Antheil to design a jam-proof torpedo in Hollywood. The control signal would be broadcast at a sequence of frequencies, and the control station and the torpedo would contain synchronized player piano mechanisms with identical scrolls, which would in essence encrypt the signaling sequence. Antheil’s contribution was the idea of using player piano mechanisms, with which he was familiar because he scored his masterpiece, Ballet M?©canique, for 16 player pianos. If you don’t believe me, here’s the patent (Lamarr was using her second husband’s name).

The play, now on stage in a Manhattan theater, includes a complete performance of the Ballet M?©canique. And the review includes a charming and ironic detail: This performance is the first in which the piece sounds as Antheil intended it. He could never figure out how to get 16 player pianos properly synchronized, so earlier performances substituted other instruments.