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Sascha Meinrath on Spectrum 2.0, Battling the Incumbents and Future Telecom Networks

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'; ?> Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of interviewing Sascha Meinrath (who will be one of the keynote speakers) via Skype. 2009-01-14-sascha-meinrath-96.mp3

The run time is 46 minutes.

Additionally the full transcript is below. To distinguish between us I've indented Sascha.


Transcript

Good morning, Sascha.  How are you?

I'm doing well.  Good morning to you. 

What time is it where you are?

Where we are, it is now about 10:30.  I've already had my first meetings of the day.  [Laughs]

Okay, well, it's 4:30 p.m. here, and I've got large mug of coffee so I'm all good for you.  So, I'm really excited to be speaking with you.  I see that you're the Research Director for the New America Foundation's Wireless Future Program.  Could you say a few words on what the Wireless Future Program is?

Sure, Wireless Future Program has been engaged, the past seven years, in telecommunications reform.  In particular, it's been particularly focused on spectrum, the public airwaves here, in the United States, and innovation in terms of how it's allocated and used, and who has access to it.  A lot of what we've pushed for are things like opening up spectrum to unlicensed devices and reallocating spectrum for public access, things of that sort.

I also head up what is going to become the Open Technology Initiative, here at New America Foundation, which will be looking at open architecture, open source, open API, kind of the open side of these technologies that are happening.  So everything from cell phones and open networks on cellular networks, to open source software and design.

Okay, the Open Technology Initiative sound pretty interesting, so let me make a note here to circle back on you, a little later, with questions on that.  So, looking here at the New America Foundation's Board of Directors, I see the Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google is the Chairman.

Yes, and he's actually been with New America since before his days at Google.  He's been on our board for a number of years, now.  Recently, this past year, he stepped up and decided that he wanted to put a bit more time and energy behind the Foundation, and has stepped up as Chairman of the Board.  He got a lot of press for it.  What was not really talked about so much is that he's been part of this institution for quite a number of years.

[Laughs]  Okay, I'm just laughing because obviously I picked up the sort of Google sense, the Google significance to it and what it could mean, except you're saying he's been on the board for years, anyway.

A lot of people want to really read in that this means Google in some way has its fingers in the Foundation, and the reality is that's not really true.  He happens to now be chairman of our board, and CEO of Google.  The reality is that there are some areas where some of the work we're doing aligns with what Google wants to do, as well, and we're happy to work together and partner in those areas, but Google doesn't have any official space or place inside this organization.

Okay, thanks a lot for that clarification.  I'm going to jump right into the deep end here, where I really want to go.  You talk about a status quo in communications.  Could I ask you to describe that status quo?

Sure, let me exemplify it straight out of our own historical records here, in the United States, which in terms of licensure and who has access to much needed resources, and it could be rights-of-way access, but I'll focus on the public airwaves part of things.  Starting in the 1920's and into the 1930's, when the Federal Communications Commission, sort of the highest, most important space for telecommunications policy making in the United States, when they decided, back in 1934 and onwards, that we had to divvy-up the airwaves, it was based on the newest, most important, cutting edge, technology of the pre-WWII society.  Unfortunately, that kind of licensure regime has, effectively, continued to be in place, right up through and until today.

When people get licenses, they get a specific license and a specific location and at a specific power, which ends up being incredibly inefficient.  A lot of things have changed since the 1930's.  We have transistors, computers, and digital technology.  That is not really taken into account in terms of shifts in how we allocate the public airwaves.  What this has led to, then, is an artificial scarcity, which keeps certain incumbencies in place.  In fact, we have sort of an oligopoly on a lot of the airwaves, but it also keeps most of the populace out of being able to use the airwaves, for various uses. 

The status quo is very much about maintaining this oligopolistic system of maintaining artificial scarcity, of ensuring that the incumbents still have control over this medium, and that the actual owners of the public airwaves are kept out of this medium.  What it boils down to is that we're really fighting to ensure that new technologies and innovations, things like digital computers and digital technology, are taken into account when we're setting up our spectrum licensure.

Okay, did you see the comments that Lessig made, regarding the FCC, recently?  Are you able to pass any comment on them?

The knee-jerk reaction is often to jettison everything.  I think there is a lot of jettisoning that needs to take place.  We need to shift, dramatically, how we license things.  But, you can't just throw everything out without an alternative for how to take care of incredibly important areas of telecommunications policy.  If we were to jettison the FCC, we would end up being stagnant in ways that are even worse than the current situation.  I still have hope that a new FCC will be more proactive in instituting much needed reforms.  I'm still hopeful that a new staff will be much more aligned with the public interest coalitions that have been working here, in D.C., and pushing for reforms that really meet the needs of the general populace. 

I don't want to throw out the baby and the bath water.  [Laughter]  I really want to look at how we can have meaningful reforms and interventions into a system that is clearly broken.  Lessig was very correct in that.  Still, it has a lot of positive aspects to it. 

Okay, and this status quo, you've described it as inefficient, stagnant, overpriced, command-and-control.  That is fairly - that's not a light viewpoint.  You feel very strongly that a status quo that we have is not acceptable. 

It is completely unacceptable.  I speak as somebody who has served a couple of terms as a member of the board of directors for my local community radio station.  I've set up a low power, FM radio station.  I've fought, for half a decade, to get a license for our local community to have its own radio station. 

These sorts of battles - it's very clear that media diversity has been thrown out of the window.  Local control of the media has been thrown out of the window over the last eight years.  These are reforms that need to be made.  We really need to re-empower the populace to take control over what is ours; the public airwaves are held in trust for us to use, and has been granted to corporations and entities that have made incredibly inefficient use of them. 

Government research - National Science Foundation here in the United States has conducted extensive research on actual spectrum usage.  What we found is that even though the allocations of space - this part for FM radio, that part for AM radio, this part for television broadcast - the allocations show a completely full spectrum.  When you look at the assignments, you find, "CBS gets this station, and WRFU gets that station".  These assignments show there is a lot of empty space, but then when you look at actual use, what's happening on the ground, you find that over ninety percent of the airwaves are vacant, in any specific location in any specific time.

You can imagine a resource that's being used less than ten percent efficiently, and that's what we have, today, with the public airwaves.  I look at that and I look at the scarcity, and I look at the desire to make better use of the public airwaves, by people all across the country, and I think that's egregiously unfair.

So, then, I would like to ask what alternatives do exist?

There are many alternatives.  One of the big ones we're pushing for is called "Opportunistic Spectrum Reuse".  People can think of this in terms of a Wi-Fi device that can scan and find an open channel.  Or, if you remember home telephones, radiotelephones, where you would hit the on button and it might scan a number of channels and choose the one that had the clearest signal.  These technologies have been around for quite some time. 

With the television white space and in the spaces that we used to - if you were flipping through your television, you would have snow on your screen; those spaces can be reutilized for broadband access and for all sorts of different purposes.  We've pushed very hard at the FCC to allow unused television spaces to be used by next generation hardware or software, etc.  This is a fundamental shift in how we license our spectrums, and basically says, "Look, as long as we're using less than ten percent of the space, let's reuse the unallocated space, the underutilized space, on an ad hoc basis, by next generation hardware, so people can do all sorts of new, innovative things with it".  That's a huge change. 

The second one that we've been fighting for, and have lost thus far, is what's called "Interference Temperature," which is that in the same was as a rock concert, people in the audience can whisper, or yell for that matter, and not be disruptive to the concert itself, we want to see very low powered usage on occupied channels.

The idea is if you're sitting next to a 100,000-watt television transmitter and you want to utilize a device to connect your laptop computer to your television, fifteen feet away, you should be allowed to do that in the same space.  Of course, the incumbents have said, "If you allow any of these things, it will destroy radio, or television," or whatever it is that they own or license.  Of course, time and time again, we've found that these claims of disruption have been blown way out of proportion.  The disruptions that have been promised have never come to pass.

Okay, Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks comes to mind.

Absolutely

So, do you have some more optimism, now that Kevin Martin has stepped down [at the FCC] and you have Julius stepping up [as chairman of the FCC]?

Yeah

Yes - more hope?

I have a lot more hope.  You know, I've worked with Julius first on the campaign, and with the transition teams, and he gets a lot of these new ideas, in terms of innovation and shifting our regulations and policies to take advantage of computers, digital technologies and other advancements that have happened in the past half century, frankly.  So I'm very hopeful that a newly constituted FCC, with him at the helm, or with somebody else at the helm, would be fantastically much more receptive to a lot of the ideas that we've been talking about for years, but it's faced a lot of resistance from regulators.

So, you see some traction coming?

Absolutely, it's very clear that they've pulled together an "A" team of thinkers and innovators to contemplate what are the new policies that we're going to be implementing or looking at, in the next few years.  That gives me a lot of hope because when you get the engineers in the same room, and they're talking off the record, there is a lot of eye-to-eye agreement on what needs to happen.  It's only once the PR spin, and what have you, gets thrown into the mix, that you end up with people on opposite sides of the table on these issues.

Okay, so what opportunities do you see?

Gosh, everything from reuse of underutilized spectrum, to rolling back some of the liberalization that has allowed for media conglomerization in unprecedented rates.  What we've seen, over the past five years - the destruction of local media, the "crisis" that's whelming in things like newspapers, here, in the United States is incredibly destructive to the health of our civil society.  That needs to be addressed. 

We need to look at everything, from how we allocate new spectrum, in terms of whether we should continue to pursue this auction system, which guarantees that corporations fight it out - whereas public interest is completely unable to afford even the licenses that are out there, or whether we look at things - everywhere from network neutrality, to how we view network management and how we view universal service fund reform, in terms of telephone versus Internet. 

All of these are issues that are going to be coming to the fore, over the next year or two, all of which are going to have to be addressed by the FCC.  Many of these have been pushed down the road by the current FCC, for the new FCC to have to deal with.

Okay, I know it's may be slightly off topic, but are you able to pass comment on 700 MHz, and your opinion of how that went?

Sure, 700 MHz was a mixed bag, to say the least.  What we have is a number of different allocations within the 700 -800 MHz range that have been auctioned off, some previously, a couple of years back, and then a huge auction that took place from January to March of 2008.  That second auction, the 2008 auction, raised close to twenty billion dollars.  The big winners were groups like Verizon, the same incumbents that have been incumbents [laughs] for quite some time now.

One of the elements that was a huge win was what's called the "Open Platform Conditions," which mandated that if you have the 20 MHz of space that Verizon won, for about 4.8 billion dollars, then you had to open up your network and you had to allow any device to be attached to this wireless network that consumers and users wanted to bring to that network.  Really, what it is, is a precedent to bring back what's called Carterphone.  On the wire line, here in the United States, there was a Supreme Court decision, in 1968, the Carterphone Decision, which mandated that you could attach what's called "foreign attachments" to any network.  What foreign attachments meant was everything from what became answering machines, to modems, which of course, is what allowed for the Internet to exist in the first place.  Without the Carterphone Decision, there would have been no Internet.

Unfortunately, in the wireless realm, we've never had a Carterphone kind of decision applied.  So, the Open Platform Mandate in the 700 MHz harkens back to this history of allowing foreign attachments, allowing devices to be attached to these networks, so long as they do not harm the network.  It is a giant leap forward, in terms of empowering customers and end users to start building next generation systems, technologies, applications, and services - all of that on a wireless medium as opposed to just the wire line medium.

On the other hand, also in the 700 MHz, you had the D Block, which was a block that was supposed to be utilized for public safety, and to create a national telecommunications infrastructure, with interoperable technologies, for public safety use.  That has been a stagnant disaster. 

I wrote an article about this for Government Technology Magazine, where I interviewed CIO's of places like New York, San Francisco, Houston, and major cities, that really desperately need an interoperable public safety network for disaster response.  They have been waiting for years for the FCC to figure out how to do this. 

In many ways, the D Block is an exemplar of how the FCC has had it's hands tied, in terms of having a mandate by Congress to have to auction this off, but also has been unable to really reinvent itself and institute innovative solutions to address the needs of public safety community, in this case, but the general populace, more generally speaking.

Okay, thanks a lot for your views there on 700 Mhz. I've got a very simple, and it could be a naïve question, but what I never understood with allowing this "foreign attachments" is that when I think of GSM, I can take my SIM card and put it in any device.  For the fancier sports cars out there, you have security systems, where you put in a SIM.  If you car is stolen, it rings you or a main center, automatically.  So, with SIM cards, you can put them into anything.  If I roam into the States, I can take any device I want and it attaches.  So, I never quite understood this because I didn't see anything different to what we have, today, except maybe on paper, it says it's okay.

You have to view it in regards of what are you allowed to do on these networks.  You can take your SIM card and move it around to any SIM-compatible, wireless telephone or similar device.  Chances are, that's actually not allowed by your terms of service with the providers, at least not in the United States, and probably internationally, for the most part.  Now, people do it en masse and it's sort of ignored.

Where you really start running into problems is when you say, "I have a data plan on my cell phone.  Why can't I use my cell phone to tether it to my laptop and get free Internet through that?  Why should I have to buy an EVDO card, or some other device for my laptop, when I'm already paying once for a data plan on my cell phone?" 

The reality is that the providers don't want you to share your data plan amongst other devices; they only want you to buy one data plan for your cell phone, one data plan for your laptop, etc.  This is where the Foreign Attachments Mandate is really important, in that you should be able to take your SIM card and not just be able to put it into your car, but to put it into any device that you want, that follows the standards of connectivity on a wireless, telephony network, and have that interoperate with that network.  You should be able to put a computer - you should be able to put - whatever it is, that should be interoperable with the cellular network, and utilize those devices as you, the consumer, the end user sees fit. 

These are places where we see the lock down that's really in place.  You can't really use any service or any application on the cellular telephony networks.  In fact, whereas that one car might use your SIM car, chances are that car's manufacturer has made some specific deal with that cellular network to allow for that usage to take place, is paying some fee or licensure, etc. 

All of this stuff really is incredibly disheartening for innovation and development of next generation applications and services.  It really stagnates that whole market sector.  When I look at all the different devices you could connect to the Internet, the wire line Internet versus the few devices you can actually connect to a cellular telephony network, I think the Carterphone versus non-Carterphone regimes really become clear.

Okay, so thanks for letting me know that.  You have said that we're at a critical juncture.

Absolutely

Do you want to describe that juncture?

Sure, there are three elements to what is creating this critical juncture.  The first is that new digital technologies are really maturing at an incredibly speedy rate, leading to all sorts of innovations and new uses.  The second is that there is an unprecedented consumer demand to make use of resources like the public airwaves, in ways we really haven't seen since the CB radio craze of the 1970's or in the 1920's, the amateur radio craze.  People really want to utilize wireless technologies in ways that are unprecedented.  The third is that we have this shift in regulatory structures and administrations.  The three of those, the regulatory shifts, the consumer demand, and the new technologies are sort of swirling together and creating this "perfect storm" that has the potential, at least, to shift the trajectory of telecommunications, of fundamental communications, for generations to come. 

Over the next year to three years, is really this moment in time that will determine what that trajectory looks like.  After that, things will really be a lot more locked down and will not be nearly as innovative an environment.  So, the battles that are being waged right now are absolutely, fundamentally important to the future of human communications.  The reality is; warts and all, what's decided here in the United States often reverberates internationally, globally. 

Okay, so you speak about fundamentally changing access to communications.  I'm obviously getting a sense of what you mean there, but do you wish to add a little more about what you mean about fundamentally changing access to communications?

Sure, I very much ascribe to the notion that communications is a fundamental human right.  Article Nineteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, back in 1948, was very explicit in stating we, as a community of civil societies, understand that if you cannot communicate, one of your fundamental rights has been infringed upon. 

We stand at this moment in human history where it is possible to ensure that everyone has access to communication, where traditional barriers to entry into this communications are rapidly being torn down.  In much the same way as we have, as a society, as a human society determined that we're uninterested in world wars any longer, and we are interested in preventing famine and addressing massive health problems, etc., we need to be focusing on communications in much that same way.  When we are looking at the fundamentals of social and economic justice, on a global scale, we need to realize that from the very beginning it has been the case that communications has really determined the health and vibrancy of democratic society. 

I think that's really nice stuff and it's something I wouldn't mind talking to you a lot longer about associated topics, but if I just jump to TV white spaces - I'm surprised how many people still don't understand what's meant by TV white spaces.  Could you describe what's meant by TV white spaces, and then also say why the fairly recent FCC decision was important?

Sure, television white space, as in snow or what you see on the channels when you're flipping through a TV, where there is no signal, where there is no broadcast, what ends up happening in any city or town that has over-the-air television broadcast is you might have a channel, let's call it channel 3.  Channel 3 may be a broadcaster in that local community.  You cannot then have a station on channel 2 or channel 4.  You need to space between these broadcast channels so they don't overlap on one another, so they don't interfere with one another.

What this leads to is a very inefficient use of the television spectrum.  You might have channel 3 and then channel 5 and then channel 7.  What also ends up happening is your neighboring towns cannot use those same channels that you are using.  You can imagine that if you try to fill a piece of paper with circles, you will find there is a lot of empty space.  In much the same way that that happens, television licensure is the same way. 

They draw a circle and they say, "That's channel 3".  No matter how you stack these channels, you always end up with underutilized space.  You have space between channels within a community.  You have space between channels between communities.  All of this, when you look at it, translates to somewhere between a low of about twenty to thirty percent and a high of over eighty percent of television channels that are unutilized. 

What the Television White Space proceedings was, was look, "Rather than just allowing this space to go unutilized, let's start looking at ways we can use the blank channels for innovation, in terms of broadband service, in terms of emergency communications, in terms of all sorts of new uses of this space".  It's very elegant, in that communities that have been least served by television's broadcasters, all of a sudden have access to the most television white space. 

This has been a battle that's been going on for many years, dating back to 2002, but really picked up in 2004, with the FCC saying, "We're going to make a decision on this".  Of course, it took four years to actually achieve a decision, but the decision ended up being, "Yes, we should reutilize these unused spaces". 

Where as the National Association of Broadcasters, the incumbents, the status quo fought against this, tooth-and-nail.  It was a huge political battle to get this done.  A coalition of community organizations, public interest groups, consumer groups, and high tech firms all came out and said, "We support this, we want to see television white space utilized for new and innovative uses". 

The reason why this is important is because it sets this precedent of saying, "Look, if you're not utilizing part of the public airwaves, we should allow devices to use that same space on an opportunistic basis".  It sets a precedent for saying, "If we have this massively underutilized resource, we, the owners of the public spectrum, - it should be entirely legal for us to make use of what we own".

This, of course, scares the bejeezus out of incumbents that have poured billions of dollars into licensing space, on the assumption that they can then keep other people out of that space.  The benefits to the general populace are so enormous, that even the political power of those incumbents was not enough to prevent this decision at the FCC.

Okay, so again, this gives you hope.

My friends often say that I'm a hopeless optimist, but I'm also sort of a pragmatist and looking at the political realities and what's possible.  What I see is that there is a fundamental shift taking place.  It's a generational shift, it's a technological shift, it's a party shift, and it's a lot of things aligning to make more effective use of these sorts of resources. 

Whether it's looking at broadband stimulus, or whether it's looking at the universal service, whether it's looking at network neutrality and carriage, whether it's looking at spectrum allocation and licensure, there is a huge impetus for making more effective uses of these resources, resources that have been underutilized for years, if not decades.  Tie that then, to the notion of things like the U.S. used to lead the world in terms of use and deployment of Internet and broadband infrastructure.  We have systematically, year after year, since the turn of the millennia, fallen further and further behind a growing number of other countries. 

When we look at that, as a country, as a society, we realize that something needs to be changed, from the midst of a massive, multi-year, market failure, a catastrophic market failure.  The market fundamentalism that has driven telecommunications policy for the past eight years is now beginning to give way to a much more pragmatic, society friendly regime.

And that should be nicely timed with the new FCC chairman appointment. 

That is very much the hope.

So, we'll need to track this now.  At the start, you mentioned the Open Technology Initiative.  I'd like to ask what kind of projects the OTI is working on.

The Open Technology Initiative is working on a number of projects around open source, open architecture, and open API systems.  I work at a think-tank so a lot of what we do is looking at what are the differential assessments of open versus proprietary systems or architectures.  How will these affect people, generally, and to concretize that a bit more?

One of the things we're looking at is the different architectures of wireless telephony systems and the hardware that runs on that.  That might be a comparison between the openness of a BlackBerry versus a Google phone, versus an iPhone versus an Openmoko phone, and the pros and cons of each endeavor.  Or, for example, we might be looking at something that's very big yet has not been looked at here in the United States - our healthcare system and portability of patient records, and interoperability of medical equipment.  We might be looking at things like how can we make more efficient use of the public airwaves, and open those up? 

It's really this intersection of technology and policy.  It's an area where, in D.C., you pretty much can't walk three feet without bumping into a lawyer.  We've realized that legal help is fundamentally important to being effective here, in D.C.  In the same way that's true, we need technologists to help us understand what's coming down the pipes, and what's happening with new technologies and the intersections of these new technologies, with the policies and regulations that we're passing. 

This might be looking at what are ISP's doing, in terms of throttling user services and applications?  A classic example would be Comcast, which is a major cable provider, really blocked BitTorrent, file-sharing protocol.  Comcast claimed they were not, and we needed technologists to step in and document exactly what Comcast was doing.  They eventually capitulated [laughs] and agreed, in fact, "Yes, fine, you caught us.  We are blocking BitTorrent, and we will stop now". 

It might also be that we're looking at various ways in which fair-use rights, in terms of copyright, are being curtailed in next generation operating systems.  Windows 7 is the new one that's coming down the pipes, and may have a lot of digital rights management that doesn't just protect copyright holders, but actually infringes upon our constitutionally, guaranteed fair-use rights as a populace.

These are all areas where, until you really take a deep dive into the technologies themselves, it's very difficult to understand the impacts that these technologies have on regulations and policies that are being put in place.

It might be - well, I won't say might be.  It is off topic, but you mentioned an OS, so the geek in me can't help but ask; are you saying Windows 7 will have something worse than what Mac now has, as well, in a new Mac - HDCP.

Yes, it's unclear exactly what Windows is going to do, but from I've heard, they are aligning themselves closer and closer with the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA, other major copyright holders, and these copyright holders have often been so incredibly concerned about things like piracy, and protecting their copyright, that they have had no compunctions about stepping all over our fair-use rights. 

I look at that combine that is developing, where most people that buy a computer are still buying a computer with a Windows operating system, and often don't have any other choice but to buy their computer with a Window operating system.  For me, when I look at Section Eight of the Constitution, which defines copyright, and also defines fair use as an important caveat, the notion that I buy a computer that comes with an operating system that infringes upon my constitutionally protected rights is of deep concern.  As we've seen, Vista had a lot of this in place already.  As we've seen this sort of rollback of our fair-use rights, I think it's fundamentally important to understand the technologies, to understand what these technologies are doing, and to fight against this diminution of these rights that are inherent in the United States.

Okay, so you're not a big fan of the personal computer becoming a glorified DVD player, with a play button, a pause button, and a pay button.  [Laughs]

Exactly, in fact, I'm a huge proponent of empowering end users to find, for themselves, what they view as fair use, and to utilize these as tools for whatever means or needs that they have.  We are allowed, as consumers who buy CD's DVD's, etc., to make copies for our own use.  If you have a technology that prevents you from doing that because of fear that you will share those files or media with other people, the notion that you would infringe upon your rights, in order to protect you from doing something that's illegal; it's like making cars that can only go 25 mph because of the fear that you might speed.  It's a ridiculous way to treat a tool that should be open.  You can kill somebody with a hammer; we don't make hammers illegal because they're a useful tool.  When you take a computer and gut it so it can't be used for anything illegal, you take a computer and make it into a relatively useless tool. 

Again, I love this topic because my favorite book is Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks, and it's certainly interesting times we're living in and what's going to take place over the next two to five or six years, i's going to determine a generation or two down the line.

But, jumping back to wireless - what do you actually think is next in spectrum policy reform?

What do I expect next?

Yeah

I think that there will be a big battle, over network neutrality, in Congress.  I expect that Senator Dorgan is going to drop a new network neutrality bill, probably in early February.  That will be on a lot of peoples' agendas.  I think that at the FCC, we will be, first and foremost, looking at how do we transition into this new regime.  I think a lot of the battles there are going to be much more about educating a new staff that's being brought in.  I think through 2009, I see things like digital rights management growing in import.  I think that is one of these areas that really have not been explored to the extent it needs to be explored.  I think that we will be battling over what it means to have universal broadband access and whether we should, as a country, prioritize that or not.  Obviously, I'm hopeful that we will prioritize it but there are a lot of groups and organizations that really want to ensure that a universal service fund enriches the incumbents without necessarily creating a competitive marketplace.

Okay, you had mentioned, again at the start, opportunistic spectrum access.  How do you think that will change things?

It has the potential to allow consumers to buy equipment that, in effect, makes everyone a broadcaster.  You can imagine a much more vibrant public sphere, in terms of media production and dissemination.  It means an increased flow of communications and information.  It means that the large barrier to entry, in terms of not too many people being able to afford either to buy or build their own radio station or television station, but can webcast, can podcast, can videocast, and can do all these things that are possible with new technologies.  But, they often lack the capacity, in terms of the broadband capacity, to do really innovative stuff such as live broadcasting and all these other media.  That is going to be coming to the fore in the near future.  We will have to address this as a society.  Much the same way that we provide parks, schools, and roads to the general populace, do we also say everyone needs to have access to broadband connectivity, as well?

Okay, I have one final question for you.  I would like to know - it's kind of two questions.  What do you see as the future of telecommunications infrastructure?  What will it look like and how will we get from where we are today, to there?

The future is absolutely going to be a hybrid infrastructure.  You will have fiber connectivity.  You want the fiber because it has capacity and reliability, but it will also be this hybrid with a wireless communication system, which will provide cost efficiencies and mobility.  Together, they will hopefully look like a seamless roaming between these different media - wireline and wireless - seamless roaming across multiple, different systems and networks.  They might go from EVDO to cellular, to Wi-Fi, to a wire line plug-in, depending on what's most effective for your needs.  All of this is predicated upon an open networking system where interoperability is paramount and where users are empowered to jump amongst multiple, different networks.  That's really, where these battles are going to be fought.  The telco incumbents really want to be sure that their users stay on their network and really don't like the notion of freeing up users to jump to whatever is most effective for end users. 

If I were to point to the future of communications, it is in this tension between end-user empowerment, edge-to-edge networking and command-and-control infrastructures that attempt to lock down users and networks and keep you on a specific network. 

Okay, would you ultimately like to see a day come where we have glass between us, or what we might call "super-high broadband" and peer-to-peer?

Yes, absolutely - I would love to see a day come where we are no longer having to worry about whether we have capacity or whether we have a mobility, not just to connect from anywhere, but to connect in the most efficient and effective manner.  Cell phones as an example, there is no reason, if you and I are in the same building, that we should have to be routed through a central tower.  The only reason why that architecture has been put in place is because in the United States, I get charged on the way up that tower and you get charged on the way down from that tower.  The network owner gets to charge twice for that call, even though for you and I, we would have better, faster and cheaper communications if our devices were connected directly to one another. 

I would like to cut out middlemen whenever possible.  I'd like to cut out hierarchies that are unnecessary for effective communications, whenever possible.  I would like to cut out tolling, adding expense for no other reason than you control the network, whenever possible.  Those battles between a distributed, peer-to-peer infrastructure, an opportunistic infrastructure and a command-and-control tolled infrastructure are really where the near future - the next half decade - the battles are all going to be fought.

Well, Sascha, I can say this; I hope you come to the eComm Conference every year.

Absolutely, it sounds like a great event.  I'm very much looking forward to attending.

Okay, so I very much look forward to the keynote that you're giving there and I wholeheartedly say thank you very much for your time and sharing your expertise.

You're very welcome, my pleasure.

Okay, have a great day, and thank you again.

You too - take care.

Bye

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2009-01-14-sascha-meinrath-96.mp3
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The run time is 46 minutes.

\n\nAdditionally the full transcript is below. To distinguish between us I've indented Sascha.


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Good morning, Sascha.  How are you?

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I'm doing well.  Good morning to you. 
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What time is it where you are?
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Where we are, it is now about 10:30.  I've already had my first meetings of the day.  [Laughs]
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Okay, well, it's 4:30 p.m. here, and I've got large mug of coffee so I'm all good for you.  So, I'm really excited to be speaking with you.  I see that you're the Research Director for the New America Foundation's Wireless Future Program.  Could you say a few words on what the Wireless Future Program is?
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Sure, Wireless Future Program has been engaged, the past seven years, in telecommunications reform.  In particular, it's been particularly focused on spectrum, the public airwaves here, in the United States, and innovation in terms of how it's allocated and used, and who has access to it.  A lot of what we've pushed for are things like opening up spectrum to unlicensed devices and reallocating spectrum for public access, things of that sort.
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I also head up what is going to become the Open Technology Initiative, here at New America Foundation, which will be looking at open architecture, open source, open API, kind of the open side of these technologies that are happening.  So everything from cell phones and open networks on cellular networks, to open source software and design.
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Okay, the Open Technology Initiative sound pretty interesting, so let me make a note here to circle back on you, a little later, with questions on that.  So, looking here at the New America Foundation's Board of Directors, I see the Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google is the Chairman.
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Yes, and he's actually been with New America since before his days at Google.  He's been on our board for a number of years, now.  Recently, this past year, he stepped up and decided that he wanted to put a bit more time and energy behind the Foundation, and has stepped up as Chairman of the Board.  He got a lot of press for it.  What was not really talked about so much is that he's been part of this institution for quite a number of years.
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[Laughs]  Okay, I'm just laughing because obviously I picked up the sort of Google sense, the Google significance to it and what it could mean, except you're saying he's been on the board for years, anyway.
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A lot of people want to really read in that this means Google in some way has its fingers in the Foundation, and the reality is that's not really true.  He happens to now be chairman of our board, and CEO of Google.  The reality is that there are some areas where some of the work we're doing aligns with what Google wants to do, as well, and we're happy to work together and partner in those areas, but Google doesn't have any official space or place inside this organization.
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Okay, thanks a lot for that clarification.  I'm going to jump right into the deep end here, where I really want to go.  You talk about a status quo in communications.  Could I ask you to describe that status quo?
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Sure, let me exemplify it straight out of our own historical records here, in the United States, which in terms of licensure and who has access to much needed resources, and it could be rights-of-way access, but I'll focus on the public airwaves part of things.  Starting in the 1920's and into the 1930's, when the Federal Communications Commission, sort of the highest, most important space for telecommunications policy making in the United States, when they decided, back in 1934 and onwards, that we had to divvy-up the airwaves, it was based on the newest, most important, cutting edge, technology of the pre-WWII society.  Unfortunately, that kind of licensure regime has, effectively, continued to be in place, right up through and until today.

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When people get licenses, they get a specific license and a specific location and at a specific power, which ends up being incredibly inefficient.  A lot of things have changed since the 1930's.  We have transistors, computers, and digital technology.  That is not really taken into account in terms of shifts in how we allocate the public airwaves.  What this has led to, then, is an artificial scarcity, which keeps certain incumbencies in place.  In fact, we have sort of an oligopoly on a lot of the airwaves, but it also keeps most of the populace out of being able to use the airwaves, for various uses. 

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The status quo is very much about maintaining this oligopolistic system of maintaining artificial scarcity, of ensuring that the incumbents still have control over this medium, and that the actual owners of the public airwaves are kept out of this medium.  What it boils down to is that we're really fighting to ensure that new technologies and innovations, things like digital computers and digital technology, are taken into account when we're setting up our spectrum licensure.

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Okay, did you see the comments that Lessig made, regarding the FCC, recently?  Are you able to pass any comment on them?
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The knee-jerk reaction is often to jettison everything.  I think there is a lot of jettisoning that needs to take place.  We need to shift, dramatically, how we license things.  But, you can't just throw everything out without an alternative for how to take care of incredibly important areas of telecommunications policy.  If we were to jettison the FCC, we would end up being stagnant in ways that are even worse than the current situation.  I still have hope that a new FCC will be more proactive in instituting much needed reforms.  I'm still hopeful that a new staff will be much more aligned with the public interest coalitions that have been working here, in D.C., and pushing for reforms that really meet the needs of the general populace. 

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I don't want to throw out the baby and the bath water.  [Laughter]  I really want to look at how we can have meaningful reforms and interventions into a system that is clearly broken.  Lessig was very correct in that.  Still, it has a lot of positive aspects to it. 

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Okay, and this status quo, you've described it as inefficient, stagnant, overpriced, command-and-control.  That is fairly - that's not a light viewpoint.  You feel very strongly that a status quo that we have is not acceptable. 

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It is completely unacceptable.  I speak as somebody who has served a couple of terms as a member of the board of directors for my local community radio station.  I've set up a low power, FM radio station.  I've fought, for half a decade, to get a license for our local community to have its own radio station. 

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These sorts of battles - it's very clear that media diversity has been thrown out of the window.  Local control of the media has been thrown out of the window over the last eight years.  These are reforms that need to be made.  We really need to re-empower the populace to take control over what is ours; the public airwaves are held in trust for us to use, and has been granted to corporations and entities that have made incredibly inefficient use of them. 

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Government research - National Science Foundation here in the United States has conducted extensive research on actual spectrum usage.  What we found is that even though the allocations of space - this part for FM radio, that part for AM radio, this part for television broadcast - the allocations show a completely full spectrum.  When you look at the assignments, you find, \"CBS gets this station, and WRFU gets that station\".  These assignments show there is a lot of empty space, but then when you look at actual use, what's happening on the ground, you find that over ninety percent of the airwaves are vacant, in any specific location in any specific time.

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You can imagine a resource that's being used less than ten percent efficiently, and that's what we have, today, with the public airwaves.  I look at that and I look at the scarcity, and I look at the desire to make better use of the public airwaves, by people all across the country, and I think that's egregiously unfair.

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So, then, I would like to ask what alternatives do exist?
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There are many alternatives.  One of the big ones we're pushing for is called \"Opportunistic Spectrum Reuse\".  People can think of this in terms of a Wi-Fi device that can scan and find an open channel.  Or, if you remember home telephones, radiotelephones, where you would hit the on button and it might scan a number of channels and choose the one that had the clearest signal.  These technologies have been around for quite some time. 

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With the television white space and in the spaces that we used to - if you were flipping through your television, you would have snow on your screen; those spaces can be reutilized for broadband access and for all sorts of different purposes.  We've pushed very hard at the FCC to allow unused television spaces to be used by next generation hardware or software, etc.  This is a fundamental shift in how we license our spectrums, and basically says, \"Look, as long as we're using less than ten percent of the space, let's reuse the unallocated space, the underutilized space, on an ad hoc basis, by next generation hardware, so people can do all sorts of new, innovative things with it\".  That's a huge change. 

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The second one that we've been fighting for, and have lost thus far, is what's called \"Interference Temperature,\" which is that in the same was as a rock concert, people in the audience can whisper, or yell for that matter, and not be disruptive to the concert itself, we want to see very low powered usage on occupied channels.

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The idea is if you're sitting next to a 100,000-watt television transmitter and you want to utilize a device to connect your laptop computer to your television, fifteen feet away, you should be allowed to do that in the same space.  Of course, the incumbents have said, \"If you allow any of these things, it will destroy radio, or television,\" or whatever it is that they own or license.  Of course, time and time again, we've found that these claims of disruption have been blown way out of proportion.  The disruptions that have been promised have never come to pass.

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Okay, Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks comes to mind.
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Absolutely
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So, do you have some more optimism, now that Kevin Martin has stepped down [at the FCC] and you have Julius stepping up [as chairman of the FCC]?
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Yeah
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Yes - more hope?
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I have a lot more hope.  You know, I've worked with Julius first on the campaign, and with the transition teams, and he gets a lot of these new ideas, in terms of innovation and shifting our regulations and policies to take advantage of computers, digital technologies and other advancements that have happened in the past half century, frankly.  So I'm very hopeful that a newly constituted FCC, with him at the helm, or with somebody else at the helm, would be fantastically much more receptive to a lot of the ideas that we've been talking about for years, but it's faced a lot of resistance from regulators.
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So, you see some traction coming?

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Absolutely, it's very clear that they've pulled together an \"A\" team of thinkers and innovators to contemplate what are the new policies that we're going to be implementing or looking at, in the next few years.  That gives me a lot of hope because when you get the engineers in the same room, and they're talking off the record, there is a lot of eye-to-eye agreement on what needs to happen.  It's only once the PR spin, and what have you, gets thrown into the mix, that you end up with people on opposite sides of the table on these issues.

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Okay, so what opportunities do you see?

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Gosh, everything from reuse of underutilized spectrum, to rolling back some of the liberalization that has allowed for media conglomerization in unprecedented rates.  What we've seen, over the past five years - the destruction of local media, the \"crisis\" that's whelming in things like newspapers, here, in the United States is incredibly destructive to the health of our civil society.  That needs to be addressed. 

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We need to look at everything, from how we allocate new spectrum, in terms of whether we should continue to pursue this auction system, which guarantees that corporations fight it out - whereas public interest is completely unable to afford even the licenses that are out there, or whether we look at things - everywhere from network neutrality, to how we view network management and how we view universal service fund reform, in terms of telephone versus Internet. 

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All of these are issues that are going to be coming to the fore, over the next year or two, all of which are going to have to be addressed by the FCC.  Many of these have been pushed down the road by the current FCC, for the new FCC to have to deal with.

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Okay, I know it's may be slightly off topic, but are you able to pass comment on 700 MHz, and your opinion of how that went?
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Sure, 700 MHz was a mixed bag, to say the least.  What we have is a number of different allocations within the 700 -800 MHz range that have been auctioned off, some previously, a couple of years back, and then a huge auction that took place from January to March of 2008.  That second auction, the 2008 auction, raised close to twenty billion dollars.  The big winners were groups like Verizon, the same incumbents that have been incumbents [laughs] for quite some time now.

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One of the elements that was a huge win was what's called the \"Open Platform Conditions,\" which mandated that if you have the 20 MHz of space that Verizon won, for about 4.8 billion dollars, then you had to open up your network and you had to allow any device to be attached to this wireless network that consumers and users wanted to bring to that network.  Really, what it is, is a precedent to bring back what's called Carterphone.  On the wire line, here in the United States, there was a Supreme Court decision, in 1968, the Carterphone Decision, which mandated that you could attach what's called \"foreign attachments\" to any network.  What foreign attachments meant was everything from what became answering machines, to modems, which of course, is what allowed for the Internet to exist in the first place.  Without the Carterphone Decision, there would have been no Internet.

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Unfortunately, in the wireless realm, we've never had a Carterphone kind of decision applied.  So, the Open Platform Mandate in the 700 MHz harkens back to this history of allowing foreign attachments, allowing devices to be attached to these networks, so long as they do not harm the network.  It is a giant leap forward, in terms of empowering customers and end users to start building next generation systems, technologies, applications, and services - all of that on a wireless medium as opposed to just the wire line medium.

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On the other hand, also in the 700 MHz, you had the D Block, which was a block that was supposed to be utilized for public safety, and to create a national telecommunications infrastructure, with interoperable technologies, for public safety use.  That has been a stagnant disaster. 

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I wrote an article about this for Government Technology Magazine, where I interviewed CIO's of places like New York, San Francisco, Houston, and major cities, that really desperately need an interoperable public safety network for disaster response.  They have been waiting for years for the FCC to figure out how to do this. 

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In many ways, the D Block is an exemplar of how the FCC has had it's hands tied, in terms of having a mandate by Congress to have to auction this off, but also has been unable to really reinvent itself and institute innovative solutions to address the needs of public safety community, in this case, but the general populace, more generally speaking.

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Okay, thanks a lot for your views there on 700 Mhz. I've got a very simple, and it could be a naïve question, but what I never understood with allowing this \"foreign attachments\" is that when I think of GSM, I can take my SIM card and put it in any device.  For the fancier sports cars out there, you have security systems, where you put in a SIM.  If you car is stolen, it rings you or a main center, automatically.  So, with SIM cards, you can put them into anything.  If I roam into the States, I can take any device I want and it attaches.  So, I never quite understood this because I didn't see anything different to what we have, today, except maybe on paper, it says it's okay.

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You have to view it in regards of what are you allowed to do on these networks.  You can take your SIM card and move it around to any SIM-compatible, wireless telephone or similar device.  Chances are, that's actually not allowed by your terms of service with the providers, at least not in the United States, and probably internationally, for the most part.  Now, people do it en masse and it's sort of ignored.

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Where you really start running into problems is when you say, \"I have a data plan on my cell phone.  Why can't I use my cell phone to tether it to my laptop and get free Internet through that?  Why should I have to buy an EVDO card, or some other device for my laptop, when I'm already paying once for a data plan on my cell phone?\" 

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The reality is that the providers don't want you to share your data plan amongst other devices; they only want you to buy one data plan for your cell phone, one data plan for your laptop, etc.  This is where the Foreign Attachments Mandate is really important, in that you should be able to take your SIM card and not just be able to put it into your car, but to put it into any device that you want, that follows the standards of connectivity on a wireless, telephony network, and have that interoperate with that network.  You should be able to put a computer - you should be able to put - whatever it is, that should be interoperable with the cellular network, and utilize those devices as you, the consumer, the end user sees fit. 

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These are places where we see the lock down that's really in place.  You can't really use any service or any application on the cellular telephony networks.  In fact, whereas that one car might use your SIM car, chances are that car's manufacturer has made some specific deal with that cellular network to allow for that usage to take place, is paying some fee or licensure, etc. 

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All of this stuff really is incredibly disheartening for innovation and development of next generation applications and services.  It really stagnates that whole market sector.  When I look at all the different devices you could connect to the Internet, the wire line Internet versus the few devices you can actually connect to a cellular telephony network, I think the Carterphone versus non-Carterphone regimes really become clear.

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Okay, so thanks for letting me know that.  You have said that we're at a critical juncture.

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Absolutely

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Do you want to describe that juncture?

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Sure, there are three elements to what is creating this critical juncture.  The first is that new digital technologies are really maturing at an incredibly speedy rate, leading to all sorts of innovations and new uses.  The second is that there is an unprecedented consumer demand to make use of resources like the public airwaves, in ways we really haven't seen since the CB radio craze of the 1970's or in the 1920's, the amateur radio craze.  People really want to utilize wireless technologies in ways that are unprecedented.  The third is that we have this shift in regulatory structures and administrations.  The three of those, the regulatory shifts, the consumer demand, and the new technologies are sort of swirling together and creating this \"perfect storm\" that has the potential, at least, to shift the trajectory of telecommunications, of fundamental communications, for generations to come. 

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Over the next year to three years, is really this moment in time that will determine what that trajectory looks like.  After that, things will really be a lot more locked down and will not be nearly as innovative an environment.  So, the battles that are being waged right now are absolutely, fundamentally important to the future of human communications.  The reality is; warts and all, what's decided here in the United States often reverberates internationally, globally. 

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Okay, so you speak about fundamentally changing access to communications.  I'm obviously getting a sense of what you mean there, but do you wish to add a little more about what you mean about fundamentally changing access to communications?

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Sure, I very much ascribe to the notion that communications is a fundamental human right.  Article Nineteen of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, back in 1948, was very explicit in stating we, as a community of civil societies, understand that if you cannot communicate, one of your fundamental rights has been infringed upon. 

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We stand at this moment in human history where it is possible to ensure that everyone has access to communication, where traditional barriers to entry into this communications are rapidly being torn down.  In much the same way as we have, as a society, as a human society determined that we're uninterested in world wars any longer, and we are interested in preventing famine and addressing massive health problems, etc., we need to be focusing on communications in much that same way.  When we are looking at the fundamentals of social and economic justice, on a global scale, we need to realize that from the very beginning it has been the case that communications has really determined the health and vibrancy of democratic society. 

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I think that's really nice stuff and it's something I wouldn't mind talking to you a lot longer about associated topics, but if I just jump to TV white spaces - I'm surprised how many people still don't understand what's meant by TV white spaces.  Could you describe what's meant by TV white spaces, and then also say why the fairly recent FCC decision was important?

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Sure, television white space, as in snow or what you see on the channels when you're flipping through a TV, where there is no signal, where there is no broadcast, what ends up happening in any city or town that has over-the-air television broadcast is you might have a channel, let's call it channel 3.  Channel 3 may be a broadcaster in that local community.  You cannot then have a station on channel 2 or channel 4.  You need to space between these broadcast channels so they don't overlap on one another, so they don't interfere with one another.

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What this leads to is a very inefficient use of the television spectrum.  You might have channel 3 and then channel 5 and then channel 7.  What also ends up happening is your neighboring towns cannot use those same channels that you are using.  You can imagine that if you try to fill a piece of paper with circles, you will find there is a lot of empty space.  In much the same way that that happens, television licensure is the same way. 

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They draw a circle and they say, \"That's channel 3\".  No matter how you stack these channels, you always end up with underutilized space.  You have space between channels within a community.  You have space between channels between communities.  All of this, when you look at it, translates to somewhere between a low of about twenty to thirty percent and a high of over eighty percent of television channels that are unutilized. 

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What the Television White Space proceedings was, was look, \"Rather than just allowing this space to go unutilized, let's start looking at ways we can use the blank channels for innovation, in terms of broadband service, in terms of emergency communications, in terms of all sorts of new uses of this space\".  It's very elegant, in that communities that have been least served by television's broadcasters, all of a sudden have access to the most television white space. 

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This has been a battle that's been going on for many years, dating back to 2002, but really picked up in 2004, with the FCC saying, \"We're going to make a decision on this\".  Of course, it took four years to actually achieve a decision, but the decision ended up being, \"Yes, we should reutilize these unused spaces\". 

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Where as the National Association of Broadcasters, the incumbents, the status quo fought against this, tooth-and-nail.  It was a huge political battle to get this done.  A coalition of community organizations, public interest groups, consumer groups, and high tech firms all came out and said, \"We support this, we want to see television white space utilized for new and innovative uses\". 

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The reason why this is important is because it sets this precedent of saying, \"Look, if you're not utilizing part of the public airwaves, we should allow devices to use that same space on an opportunistic basis\".  It sets a precedent for saying, \"If we have this massively underutilized resource, we, the owners of the public spectrum, - it should be entirely legal for us to make use of what we own\".

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This, of course, scares the bejeezus out of incumbents that have poured billions of dollars into licensing space, on the assumption that they can then keep other people out of that space.  The benefits to the general populace are so enormous, that even the political power of those incumbents was not enough to prevent this decision at the FCC.

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Okay, so again, this gives you hope.

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My friends often say that I'm a hopeless optimist, but I'm also sort of a pragmatist and looking at the political realities and what's possible.  What I see is that there is a fundamental shift taking place.  It's a generational shift, it's a technological shift, it's a party shift, and it's a lot of things aligning to make more effective use of these sorts of resources. 

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Whether it's looking at broadband stimulus, or whether it's looking at the universal service, whether it's looking at network neutrality and carriage, whether it's looking at spectrum allocation and licensure, there is a huge impetus for making more effective uses of these resources, resources that have been underutilized for years, if not decades.  Tie that then, to the notion of things like the U.S. used to lead the world in terms of use and deployment of Internet and broadband infrastructure.  We have systematically, year after year, since the turn of the millennia, fallen further and further behind a growing number of other countries. 

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When we look at that, as a country, as a society, we realize that something needs to be changed, from the midst of a massive, multi-year, market failure, a catastrophic market failure.  The market fundamentalism that has driven telecommunications policy for the past eight years is now beginning to give way to a much more pragmatic, society friendly regime.

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And that should be nicely timed with the new FCC chairman appointment. 

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That is very much the hope.

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So, we'll need to track this now.  At the start, you mentioned the Open Technology Initiative.  I'd like to ask what kind of projects the OTI is working on.

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The Open Technology Initiative is working on a number of projects around open source, open architecture, and open API systems.  I work at a think-tank so a lot of what we do is looking at what are the differential assessments of open versus proprietary systems or architectures.  How will these affect people, generally, and to concretize that a bit more?

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One of the things we're looking at is the different architectures of wireless telephony systems and the hardware that runs on that.  That might be a comparison between the openness of a BlackBerry versus a Google phone, versus an iPhone versus an Openmoko phone, and the pros and cons of each endeavor.  Or, for example, we might be looking at something that's very big yet has not been looked at here in the United States - our healthcare system and portability of patient records, and interoperability of medical equipment.  We might be looking at things like how can we make more efficient use of the public airwaves, and open those up? 

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It's really this intersection of technology and policy.  It's an area where, in D.C., you pretty much can't walk three feet without bumping into a lawyer.  We've realized that legal help is fundamentally important to being effective here, in D.C.  In the same way that's true, we need technologists to help us understand what's coming down the pipes, and what's happening with new technologies and the intersections of these new technologies, with the policies and regulations that we're passing. 

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This might be looking at what are ISP's doing, in terms of throttling user services and applications?  A classic example would be Comcast, which is a major cable provider, really blocked BitTorrent, file-sharing protocol.  Comcast claimed they were not, and we needed technologists to step in and document exactly what Comcast was doing.  They eventually capitulated [laughs] and agreed, in fact, \"Yes, fine, you caught us.  We are blocking BitTorrent, and we will stop now\". 

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It might also be that we're looking at various ways in which fair-use rights, in terms of copyright, are being curtailed in next generation operating systems.  Windows 7 is the new one that's coming down the pipes, and may have a lot of digital rights management that doesn't just protect copyright holders, but actually infringes upon our constitutionally, guaranteed fair-use rights as a populace.

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These are all areas where, until you really take a deep dive into the technologies themselves, it's very difficult to understand the impacts that these technologies have on regulations and policies that are being put in place.

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It might be - well, I won't say might be.  It is off topic, but you mentioned an OS, so the geek in me can't help but ask; are you saying Windows 7 will have something worse than what Mac now has, as well, in a new Mac - HDCP.

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Yes, it's unclear exactly what Windows is going to do, but from I've heard, they are aligning themselves closer and closer with the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA, other major copyright holders, and these copyright holders have often been so incredibly concerned about things like piracy, and protecting their copyright, that they have had no compunctions about stepping all over our fair-use rights. 

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I look at that combine that is developing, where most people that buy a computer are still buying a computer with a Windows operating system, and often don't have any other choice but to buy their computer with a Window operating system.  For me, when I look at Section Eight of the Constitution, which defines copyright, and also defines fair use as an important caveat, the notion that I buy a computer that comes with an operating system that infringes upon my constitutionally protected rights is of deep concern.  As we've seen, Vista had a lot of this in place already.  As we've seen this sort of rollback of our fair-use rights, I think it's fundamentally important to understand the technologies, to understand what these technologies are doing, and to fight against this diminution of these rights that are inherent in the United States.

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Okay, so you're not a big fan of the personal computer becoming a glorified DVD player, with a play button, a pause button, and a pay button.  [Laughs]

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Exactly, in fact, I'm a huge proponent of empowering end users to find, for themselves, what they view as fair use, and to utilize these as tools for whatever means or needs that they have.  We are allowed, as consumers who buy CD's DVD's, etc., to make copies for our own use.  If you have a technology that prevents you from doing that because of fear that you will share those files or media with other people, the notion that you would infringe upon your rights, in order to protect you from doing something that's illegal; it's like making cars that can only go 25 mph because of the fear that you might speed.  It's a ridiculous way to treat a tool that should be open.  You can kill somebody with a hammer; we don't make hammers illegal because they're a useful tool.  When you take a computer and gut it so it can't be used for anything illegal, you take a computer and make it into a relatively useless tool. 

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Again, I love this topic because my favorite book is Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks, and it's certainly interesting times we're living in and what's going to take place over the next two to five or six years, i's going to determine a generation or two down the line.

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But, jumping back to wireless - what do you actually think is next in spectrum policy reform?

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What do I expect next?

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Yeah
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I think that there will be a big battle, over network neutrality, in Congress.  I expect that Senator Dorgan is going to drop a new network neutrality bill, probably in early February.  That will be on a lot of peoples' agendas.  I think that at the FCC, we will be, first and foremost, looking at how do we transition into this new regime.  I think a lot of the battles there are going to be much more about educating a new staff that's being brought in.  I think through 2009, I see things like digital rights management growing in import.  I think that is one of these areas that really have not been explored to the extent it needs to be explored.  I think that we will be battling over what it means to have universal broadband access and whether we should, as a country, prioritize that or not.  Obviously, I'm hopeful that we will prioritize it but there are a lot of groups and organizations that really want to ensure that a universal service fund enriches the incumbents without necessarily creating a competitive marketplace.

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Okay, you had mentioned, again at the start, opportunistic spectrum access.  How do you think that will change things?

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It has the potential to allow consumers to buy equipment that, in effect, makes everyone a broadcaster.  You can imagine a much more vibrant public sphere, in terms of media production and dissemination.  It means an increased flow of communications and information.  It means that the large barrier to entry, in terms of not too many people being able to afford either to buy or build their own radio station or television station, but can webcast, can podcast, can videocast, and can do all these things that are possible with new technologies.  But, they often lack the capacity, in terms of the broadband capacity, to do really innovative stuff such as live broadcasting and all these other media.  That is going to be coming to the fore in the near future.  We will have to address this as a society.  Much the same way that we provide parks, schools, and roads to the general populace, do we also say everyone needs to have access to broadband connectivity, as well?

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Okay, I have one final question for you.  I would like to know - it's kind of two questions.  What do you see as the future of telecommunications infrastructure?  What will it look like and how will we get from where we are today, to there?

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The future is absolutely going to be a hybrid infrastructure.  You will have fiber connectivity.  You want the fiber because it has capacity and reliability, but it will also be this hybrid with a wireless communication system, which will provide cost efficiencies and mobility.  Together, they will hopefully look like a seamless roaming between these different media - wireline and wireless - seamless roaming across multiple, different systems and networks.  They might go from EVDO to cellular, to Wi-Fi, to a wire line plug-in, depending on what's most effective for your needs.  All of this is predicated upon an open networking system where interoperability is paramount and where users are empowered to jump amongst multiple, different networks.  That's really, where these battles are going to be fought.  The telco incumbents really want to be sure that their users stay on their network and really don't like the notion of freeing up users to jump to whatever is most effective for end users. 

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If I were to point to the future of communications, it is in this tension between end-user empowerment, edge-to-edge networking and command-and-control infrastructures that attempt to lock down users and networks and keep you on a specific network. 

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Okay, would you ultimately like to see a day come where we have glass between us, or what we might call \"super-high broadband\" and peer-to-peer?

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Yes, absolutely - I would love to see a day come where we are no longer having to worry about whether we have capacity or whether we have a mobility, not just to connect from anywhere, but to connect in the most efficient and effective manner.  Cell phones as an example, there is no reason, if you and I are in the same building, that we should have to be routed through a central tower.  The only reason why that architecture has been put in place is because in the United States, I get charged on the way up that tower and you get charged on the way down from that tower.  The network owner gets to charge twice for that call, even though for you and I, we would have better, faster and cheaper communications if our devices were connected directly to one another. 

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I would like to cut out middlemen whenever possible.  I'd like to cut out hierarchies that are unnecessary for effective communications, whenever possible.  I would like to cut out tolling, adding expense for no other reason than you control the network, whenever possible.  Those battles between a distributed, peer-to-peer infrastructure, an opportunistic infrastructure and a command-and-control tolled infrastructure are really where the near future - the next half decade - the battles are all going to be fought.

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Well, Sascha, I can say this; I hope you come to the eComm Conference every year.

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Absolutely, it sounds like a great event.  I'm very much looking forward to attending.

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Okay, so I very much look forward to the keynote that you're giving there and I wholeheartedly say thank you very much for your time and sharing your expertise.

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You're very welcome, my pleasure.

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Okay, have a great day, and thank you again.

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You too - take care.

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Bye

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This page contains a single entry by Lee S Dryburgh published on January 16, 2009 2:46 PM.

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