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The Spectrum Of Our Freedoms

What if Internet users were more than just users? Given the possibility of taking up the airwaves, they could become not just content providers, but also access providers. We would then be more than mere consumers, and the Internet's acentered and multipolar architecture would be preserved.

Free to communicate… wirelessly

Freedom of communication, a stalwart of democratic order, cannot be conceived without the freedom to use means of communication. Be it a press article, a phone conversation, a television or radio program or electronic mail, freedom to express an idea or an opinion depends on the possibility of transmitting a message via a piece of paper, along a copper wire, a coaxial cable or optical fibre. Wireless communications are no exception, as freedom of communication in this field depends on free access to the spectrum of radio-electric frequencies to receive or emit radio waves. To this day, this freedom has always been subject to heavy state regulation. It is high time to move into a new age of spectrum management by ensuring free and shared access to this public resource. This constitutes a true reservoir of innovation and democratisation, unfortunately neglected by most governments

Thirty years ago in France, the same will to go beyond the State's control over radio waves led to the recognition of local radio stations as an exception to the public monopoly of radio-electric spectrum access. What was then unthinkable for many leaders quickly became part of everyday life for the French people. “Underground”, community radios were finally able to emit on assigned frequencies, and became a major source of information and debate.

A few years later, another instance of economic liberalisation – the opening of the telecommunications sector – proved highly instructive. Despite some hiccups, it is this second movement which has made the lightning development of the Internet possible. Paired with open computing, this amazing network based on a decentralised architecture now gives everyone the opportunity to communicate at minimum expense, however they see fit. The Internet thus fosters freedom of expression and communication, one of the cornerstones of modern democracies, as was emphasised by the French Constitutional Court in its decision on the first HADOPI law, in which judges mentioned the importance of the Internet “for participation in the democratic process and the expression of ideas and opinions.”

“Pushing the Internet into the air”

The Internet has also shown that innovation cannot be left to a central authority. It has proved that the creative potential of each network user is in fact increased when they no longer need prior authorisation from bureaucracies following outdated thought patterns. Thanks to the historic progress made possible by the global communication network, we can now envision a world where equality among people and diversity are embedded in the technology that carries our messages and ideas. The State no longer has the task of guaranteeing formal pluralism, organised by governments who may occasionally turn into censors. It must, however, be the guardian of the egalitarian nature of existing communication channels so as to ensure the expression of a genuine pluralism – a pluralism rooted in reality.

And yet, no sooner discovered, this pluralism is already subject to filtering, blocking and other arbitrary restrictions by both private and public stakeholders. As operators and regulators strengthen their grasp on our means of communication, it is now vital to explore new areas of freedom. To do this, the Internet and the open architecture on which it rests must be pushed into the radio spectrum. Far from the logic of centralised frequency administration as we currently know it, we must organise an open and decentralised model of access to spectrum. This would give everybody the possibility of using this public resource, for any purpose they see fit and without needing prior approval from a public authority. For this reason, extending shared access to radio waves, similar to what is done with Wi-Fi, must be a political priority.

“No way!”, will say most existing actors and regulators, “You can't be serious! The hertzian spectrum is a scarce commodity, and one that we must administer or risk interferences.”. This defense of the status quo hides a reality we will have to overcome: the State remains the sole master of spectrum use. It is indeed the State that decides how frequencies are allocated and used. For instance, it was public authorities that compelled TV broadcasters to switch to digital TV broadcasting. It is also the State that decided how to allocate the freed-up frequencies to new uses such as WiMax, mobile television, or terrestrial digital radio – promises that have still not become reality.

Taking spectrum out of the State's hands

Instead of this inane way of administering communications, we must dismiss the archaic idea that spectrum is a commodity on the verge of depletion; a commodity to which access needs to be reserved to only a few licensed operators. In fact, spectrum scarcity has much more to do with its partitioning and the arbitrary allocation of frequencies than with the growth of spectrum usage.1

If it is now possible to envision a shared and decentralised form of spectrum management, it is foremost thanks to emitters and receivers becoming ever smarter since the pre-WWII era, and now communicating side by side without harmful interference. When regulators decided to allocate to Wi-Fi uses the airwaves that were so far considered “garbage” because they were supposedly unexploitable, a new realm of shared communications emerged. Now, millions of us are using these frequencies freely, rolling-out Internet wireless networks where it was thought that no communication could ever go through.

Starting now, shared and unlicensed access to the spectrum can and must be pushed further, with what some call “Super Wi-Fi”2. To do so, we must authorise shared access to new bands of frequencies, and in particular those located between the bands allocated to audiovisual broadcasters. These virgin spaces, called white spaces, can give rise to a new generation of wireless broadband and long-range networks. By using white spaces in conjunction with radio technologies that can turn every user into a relay within the network (so-called “mesh networks”3), and by encouraging complementarity between wired landline networks and wireless networks, we can revolutionise mobile Internet access and win a decisive battle in the fight against the digital divide.

In the United States, this is already well understood, as the Federal Communications Commission has been working for several years on shared and unlicensed access to white spaces4 . Europe must quickly follow suit if it wants to remain a world leader in mobile communications5. Beyond the simple issue of competitiveness, policy-makers need to understand that by favouring greater freedom of communication, freeing spectrum use would launch a new wave of technological, social and democratic innovations.

Even though the expected benefits of shared access to airwaves are obvious, resistance to change will be fierce. The powerful industries which have dominated the hertzian landscape in the 30 years that now separate us from the State monopoly are opposing shared spectrum access. As these industries cling to the privileges that were once granted to them by governments, let us remind them that, as is always the case, the inescapable democratization is all the more painful if one resists it. As for those who seek to defend spectrum management policies that reinforce the democratic foundations of our society, they can follow the illustrious example of those before who fought for the freedom of radio stations.


By Jean Cattan, PhD candidate in communications law, Aix-en-Provence Law School
and Félix Tréguer, in charge of policy and legal affairs at La Quadrature du Net and PhD candidate in political science at EHESS.

Article originally published on Owni.fr.