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Voting For a Free and Open Wireless Internet

Next Tuesday, April 12th, the EU Parliament Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) will hold a major vote for the future of wireless communications in the European Union. By amending the radio spectrum policy programme proposed by the European Commission, Members of the Parliament have an opportunity to boost wireless Internet access. By encouraging shared and unlicensed uses of the spectrum, they can create the next generation of WiFi networks that will improve access to the Internet in urban as well as rural communities, and launch the next wave of innovation in mobile communications. But the risk is for Europe to give in to media or telecoms corporations who would like to control the airwaves – a public resource. La Quadrature calls on EU citizens and NGOs to step into this important debate on the future of our communications system, which forms the structure of our democratic societies.

In Europe, the debate on Net neutrality is still unsettled, but policy-makers are already considering a legislative proposal that could have far-reaching consequences. A few months ago, the Commission proposed the first European radio spectrum policy programme. The goal is to adopt a EU-wide framework to decide how airwaves should be used in our increasingly digital world.

Spectrum (the whole range of radio-electric frequencies available for wireless communications) is a resource that digital technology has rendered relatively abundant. Yet, some interest groups would like to keep it artificially scarce, by reserving it for the broadcasters' few-to-many1 approach or the inefficient and controlled mobile telecommunications networks2. At this point, EU lawmakers are keen on expanding uses for electronic communications operated by telcos (3G and 4G mobile networks), while allowing media broadcasters (TV and radio channels) to sell their licenses to use airwaves. For now, public debate has been shaped by the positions of telecoms operators and broadcasters. The voice of the public interest must be heard.

A third way must be encouraged. In order to push for the development of very fast and decentralized Internet wireless networks, more spectrum must be shared among all users so as to create a free and open wireless Internet, as opposed to airwaves managed by one entity, be it a media broadcaster or a telecoms operator. Such unlicensed uses could lead to city or village-wide public networks, allowing any citizen or business to communicate through the Internet in order to send and receive the content, applications and services of their choice, without risking being slowed down or blocked by any operator. Such deployments would be key to connecting remote or rural areas and bridging the “digital divide”.

To boost access to inclusive communications and foster innovation, the EU must expand new shared and unlicensed uses of the spectrum. La Quadrature has started analyzing the amendments tabled on the proposals by the Members of the ITRE committee. Some are very good3, encouraging the use of so-called “white spaces”, that is to say frequencies attributed to broadcasters but that are left unused and can be used to build super-WiFi networks (amendments 233, 251). This is particularly important for EU competitiveness: as the United-States moves towards opening white-spaces to unlicensed uses to create a new generation of wireless networks4, Europe runs the risk of lagging behind if it does not follow the same path. Other amendments call on exploring smart wireless technologies, which also allows for the construction of highly decentralized meshed networks, thus giving Internet access to citizens and businesses in rural or remote areas, that are often neglected – if not abandoned – by telecoms operators (amendments 33, 271, 395) .

Help us analyze the amendements and step in the debate by getting in touch with representatives in the ITRE committee! Help them understand the benefits of free airwaves for democracy and innovation.

For more background on this new form of spectrum management, see: Yochai Benkler, 2002, “Some Economics of Wireless Communications”, Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, vol. 16. Address: http://www.benkler.org/Pub.html#Spectrum.