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February 25, 2005

New UK Group to Push for Unlicensed Spectrum

By Nancy Gohring

A new group was founded last week in the UK dedicated to influencing spectrum policy toward opening up unlicensed spectrum: Open Spectrum UK is an amalgamation of different community networking groups and non-profit organizations. They came together to submit a response to Ofcom’s Spectrum Framework Review consultation. “In cooperating to produce this statement to Ofcom, the groups involved realized that they agreed with each other 99 percent of the time,” said Robert Horvitz, founder of Open Spectrum International. “They want to continue advocating more license-exempt spectrum after the consultation is over, so as a result they created this alliance.”

John Wilson, who serves as secretary at, a group that is building wireless networks in Cardiff, Wales, is spearheading the new group.

The document submitted to Ofcom focuses on the aspects of Ofcom’s consultation related to license exemption. For example, Ofcom proposed a ceiling of 800 MHz of license-exempt spectrum by 2010 and while Open Spectrum UK finds that to be an adequate amount, the group would like to know how Ofcom came up with that figure and proposed that it be treated not as a maximum but as a preliminary estimate. The group also believes that a total of 800 MHz of unlicensed frequencies likely precludes opening up frequencies in the higher bands, which it believes would be valuable for unlicensed use.

Open Spectrum UK also took issue with Ofcom’s proposal to deny license-exempt cognitive radios. While the group agrees that some requirements may need to be set to prevent potential interference, it objects to a sweeping dismissal of cognitive radio usage.

The authors also set out to influence the overall mindset of the licensing body. According to the EU’s licensing directive and framework for electronic communications, license exemption (or, technically, general authorization) should be the default position for regulators. “It’s not license exemption which needs to be justified by need, it’s licensing which needs to be justified by need,” Horvitz said. While many European countries including the UK are growing more progressive in their thinking toward license exempt, “they still have the habit of thinking of licensing as the default approach to spectrum management,” he said.

The authors link that change of thinking to human rights, in a way that Horvitz says is rarely done. The requirement of governments not to require licenses in the absence of interference is rooted in the European Human Rights Treaty from 1950 which asserts that everyone has the right to send and receive information without interference from the government. But licensing can be seen as interference from the government. The treaty lists some exceptions to the right, such as some forms of broadcasting and for public safety. “When licensing cannot be justified by any of these exceptions, it must be considered a violation of human rights,” the Open Spectrum UK document asserts.

This point is particularly important, Horvitz said. “I believe it’s the first time it has been put on record as a position in what is normally an area where technology rules,” he said. “The root of Europe’s policy to move away from individual licenses to class licenses is based on a human rights perspective. That means you have to prove that it’s necessary for there to be individual licensing,” he said.

Horvitz says he’s not a “fanatic about open spectrum,” but that he recognizes that unlicensed spectrum can be a useful tool.

Horvitz’s group, Open Spectrum International, was founded in August 2004 with a mission of helping countries around the world de-license spectrum for use primarily by Wi-Fi. “It has so much potential for improving access to the Net and driving down costs,” Horvitz said.

The organization will typically focus on the less developed countries, usually outside of Europe, “where reform won’t happen spontaneously,” Horvitz said. But because England tends to be a thought-leader throughout Europe Horvitz got involved in commenting on the recent Ofcom consultation. “We won’t focus on England. It was just an issue that came along where we thought we could make a difference,” he said.

Horvitz’s interest in unlicensed radio dates back 25 years when he became a radio hobbyist. At the time, he refused to get a Ham license because he believed that packet radio ought to be an unlicensed activity. “When the open spectrum movement in the U.S. got rolling in 2000 or 2001, I was so excited because I never thought I’d live long enough to see this become a mass movement,” he said. “Then when Wi-Fi really took off in 2002, its potential in developing countries became immediately clear.”

Posted by nancyg at February 25, 2005 11:29 AM

Categories: spectrum

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Bravo to Mr. Horvitz and the bold steps by OFCOM!
Having worked with cognitive radio (CR) networks operating at 5 GHz I know that radio spectrum can be used more efficiently by technologies specifically designed to recognize the origin of Co-channel interference and an IP based feedback mechanism to control it. I suggest readers follow the developments of the IEEE 802.22 that is looking at license-exempt use of TV spectrum using CR. With the processing powers of radio chip silicon and IP networks that literally thread their way through the electronic information matrix of the world there is no reason to maintain the systems of spectrum possession that dates back to feudal concepts of land ownership. 100,000 Owners of 802.11b RLAN cards in a city better manage their LE spectrum, with unheard of efficiency than any single corporate owner.....ask any bankrupt LMDS operator.

Posted by: John Sydor at February 27, 2005 9:37 PM

Philosophically, spectrum rights are no different to rights over other intangible assets: land use, for example.

I had not realised that anarcho-communism (Kropotkin) was still such a popular philosophy: "Lets get rid of property rights and allow open access and everyone will all just get along".

Coase won the Nobel prize in economics for work that originated in RF spectrum rights. Cogntive Radios might well allow spectrum rights to work more efficiently (reduced transaction costs). But only if there's a market, if things are well run. There is great potential to increase efficiency & re-use dormant spectrum. And to be fair, OFCOM are indeed looking at these issues.

But in most domains, property rights (and associated fees) are critical to actually get things to work well. The Tragedy of The Commons seems a likely prospect if the more naive techno-anarchists get their way.

Posted by: Rupert Baines at February 28, 2005 8:53 PM

If you read our comments to Ofcom, you'll see that we go to great lengths to emphasize the importance of equipment type acceptance as a way to reduce the risk of a "tragedy of the commons." As many people have noted, unlicensed does not mean unregulated. Nor are unlicensed bands a utopian fantasy divorced from market economics. The market regulates unlicensed bands, even more completely than it does licensed bands - but at the level of user choices of equipment, not as a marginal correction of the government's rationing of channel use rights. Selfish behaviour in unlicensed bands is a genuine problem, no doubt about it. But type acceptance, smart adaptive/automatic frequency selection, and fear of market failure provide forms of discipline in the absence of administered access. Only time will tell if that is enough. But one would think that the blazing - and still growing - global market success of unlicenced devices would have already put to rest the criticism that this is somehow an unrealistic anarchist/communist/retrofuturist dream.

Posted by: Robert Horvitz at March 1, 2005 10:32 AM