DeeDee Halleck on Mon, 17 Jan 2005 10:05:36 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Build Community: Wireless Infrastructrure and Right to Communicate

Can We Build a Wireless Communications Infrastructure That Values Everyones 
Right to Communicate?

By Vikki Cravens, Dharma Dailey, and Antwuan Wallace

Putting Equity On the Front Burner.

If you believe that community based media is a good idea, then you probably 
think that its a good idea for all communities. Yet whether any particular 
community will have access to community radio or community TV is haphazard. 
Radio licenses may be, but most often are not, available for community use. 
Additionally, under existing rules, the most affordable and technically 
accessible type of community broadcasting, low power radio, has a secondary 
status-- community low power stations can be moved or even bumped by large 
commercial broadcasters. Community based television also lives under the shadow 
of industry. Because the financing for community access TV comes from the fees 
negotiated between municipalities and cable companies, the cable industry gets 
a chance to wiggle out of its community obligations every time one of these 
local contracts comes up for renewal. Additionally, the industry lobbies at the 
national level to unfetter itself from these obligations. Lastly, if 
communities discover a pressing cultural or civic need that needs to be 
expressed, such as a health crisis, there is often no immediate way for them to 
put in place a communication system to address their communication gap in a 
timely manner.

If it were possible for the public to directly access the airwaves without 
having to negotiate with an intermediary- the FCC or one of its sanctioned 
industry kingpins- then perhaps it would be possible to expand community media 
services to all communities. It may even be possible for community based 
communications to spring up and build out on an as-needed basis. While this may 
sound far-fetched, there are technological advances that make it increasingly 
possible and economically feasible. There is also a legal case to be made for 
such an idea.

The goal of a more equitable distribution of information by the public and for 
the public should be of paramount importance to any democratic government. Yet, 
far too often in the United States, approaches to public policy are couched in 
economic terms that favor efficiency tradeoffs over equity tradeoffs. Equitable 
access to a wireless communication infrastructure is even less well suited to 
current public policy than questions of equitable access to other resources. 
Favoring economic efficiency over other considerations is most logical when 
applied to resources that cannot be jointly consumed. But a wireless 
communication infrastructure based on the best of current wireless 
technologies- smart radio- is a public good that can be consumed by everyone 
including those who cannot pay. It is difficult to overstate the social justice 
potential for a communication infrastructure based on smart radio.

In light of the drastic advances in communication technology that are taking 
place, we need to seriously reconsider what constitutes the public interest. As 
we approach "pervasive connectivity" over the airwaves- that is cheap and 
ubiquitous communication- current thinking of what constitutes public access 
must be changed. In this new communications paradigm at least two important 
shifts are possible. First, our ideas about what constitutes adequate access to 
communication can be radically expanded upward. Second, independent 
communication systems can be created and controlled at the local level without 
the heavy hand of government deciding who gets to communicate with whom and 
without corporate monopolies. These local systems need not all look the same, 
serve the same constituencies, or be sustained in the same ways. Smart radio is 
flexible enough to support many models, including home grown and ad hoc 

I. Assume Everyone Has the Right to Broadcast.  The Technical Case.

The Wi-Fi Accident.

The first wave of smart radio was accidentally unleashed directly on the public 
in 1999. WI-FI- two-way smart radios that network computers- was envisioned by 
its creators as a way to network offices without wires, but it quickly became a 
way for neighbors- all over the world- to share internet service. But WiFi is 
only a taste of what is possible with Low-Power Community Based Communications 
that use Smart Radio technology.

Leading Smart Radio expert Kevin Werbach believes the best way for the airwaves 
to be allocated in the Smart Radio context is to assume that everyone has a 
baseline universal privilege to communicate. In Radio Revolution: The 
Coming Age of Unlicensed Wireless, Werbach states, Using a combination of the 
techniques outlined in this paper, it is possible to imagine a world in which 
anyone can be a broadcaster.

The 999,999 Missing Channels of Communication.

The cluster of computer and networking innovations collectively known as Smart 
Radio makes it possible for the airwaves to be used for many, many times more 
channels of communication than could be imagined just a few years ago. At a 
recent public talk in DC, FCC Chief Engineer Ed Thomas said that he never would 
have predicted the current developments in wireless communications even five 
years ago, but today Im amazed by what can be put into a small box.

According to J. H. Sniders Citizens Guide to the Airwaves, the same amount 
of airwaves that carried one TV channel in 1960, can today carry 10 channels. 
Similarly, the amount of the airwaves that was tied up by a single mobile phone 
call in the 1940s today handles 100,000 phone calls. As time marches on we can 
expect even more improvements., Yet all of these advances," Snider states, 
"may be little compared to whats likely to happen in the next decade. Another 
increase in spectrum capacity by a factor of 100,000 is quite possible.

These advances in wireless communication have not been applied equally. Though 
some of the innovations that make so much more communication possible have been 
around for decades and many are already being used by some broadcasting based 
industries, the FCC is only now considering whether these innovations will be 
applied across the board. So the question must be raised, will the benefits of 
these new technologies be applied to direct public access? What would community 
media look like it were multiplied by 100,000 or 100,000 x 100,000?

Unlicensed  The More Fairer Regime.

WiFi is one of dozens of wireless radio devices including portable phones, 
garage door openers, remote controls and Mr. Microphones that transmit and 
receive on special radio bands that have been designated unlicensed. 
Unlicensed does not mean- as some big telecoms are saying right now- that there 
are no rules and chaos reigns. Quite the contrary. On licensed radio, people 
get permission to broadcast from the FCC. With unlicensed radio, a device gets 
permission to be made. Creators submit their design for a device to the FCC for 
approval. Unlicensed devices are required to follow strict specifications Once 
it is proven to meet their engineering standards, any number of them can be 
made without each one having to be licensed. People that want to use unlicensed 
devices- their portable phones, garage door openers or wifi phones- do not need 
to get prior permission to use them from the FCC.

When smart radio technologies are placed in an unlicensed regime, flexible 
low-cost community wide communication systems can be set up on an as-needed 
basis. For example, Cleveland is creating a citywide municipal bicycle 
lane. One Cleveland is a high speed city wide network that is designed to 
lower access costs for all who use it. Scalable to neighborhoods or other 
cities, the Cleveland project provides free wireless internet to the public 
while lowering communications costs for participating non-profits and 
government agencies. One Cleveland designers are focusing on five core aspects 
for planning their digital city": "bridging the digital divide, health care, 
arts and culture, scientific research and e-government." Operational savings 
for participating educational, government, cultural, and healthcare 
organizations is anticipated to be 30-60%. Participating organizations are 
encouraged to provide free public access.

By creating access points in all public schools, universities, and other public 
areas, the digital city planners hope to create the digital infrastructure they 
believe is critical to economic growth. By creating this core network for the 
city, the public should benefit by opportunities for "learning, job training, 
research, economic development, and community access to culture, healthcare, 
and e-governmnet."

On a smaller scale along these lines, the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts 
is networking computer training centers and non-profits in the Roxbury area of 
Boston in order to more effectively share resources such as expensive computer 
training programs. In Urbana-Champaign, Illinois a community wireless group is 
providing internet on a sliding scale capping at $10 a month. And in southern 
California, eighteen Indian reservations in San Diego county are using wireless 
to reunite their tribe across a distance of over 200 miles with hopes of making 
their project self-sustaining by providing high-speed access to nonnative 

In his Draft Principles of Progressive Spectrum Management, Harold Feld points 
out the public interest problems with licensing in light of the new technical 
possibilities: "Licensing spectrum...represents a fundamental restraint on the 
ability of citizens to communicate with one another. If licenses are exclusive, 
then citizens can only communicate with each other via a government sanctioned 
intermediary. If that intermediary has the right to choose how to deploy 
systems, or what content gets carried on the system, then communities and 
individuals find themselves at the mercy of government licenses. No matter what 
technical capacities the system may support, or what content people may prefer, 
or the rate at which communities would otherwise wish to see services deployed, 
decisions on these matters rest wholly with the licensee." He continues, "Free 
citizens should not have to go on bended knee, like serfs of old, to those 
given exclusive spectrum franchises by the government. Decentralized control of 
spectrum has been advanced on economic grounds, but it derives its fundamental 
justification from the principles of the First Amendment."

Communities Can Build, Own, and Control Their Communications Infrastructure.

So far, unlicensed devices are always low-power. This means that the most smart 
radio devices like WiFi "whisper" instead of "shouting" the way big 
broadcasters do. Whispering has some big advantages. A lot more conversations 
can take place in a room where everyone is whispering instead of shouting. 
Low-power networks can be very reliable and powerful. So-called "mesh" networks 
with lots of low-power transmitters constantly whispering to their neighbors - 
sending and receiving- are more reliable than old-fashioned point to point 
networks. An important advantage to the community minded is that each 
transmitter in the mesh network is relatively inexpensive to buy and install 
compared to big transmitters that need special towers to work. The network can 
be added on to in a "pay as you go" fashion. As money becomes available the 
network grows. Each transmitter can be owned by the person who throws it up on 
the roof. And the more people who do so, the more coverage you have and the 
better the network can run.

Trickle Down Media Democracy Doesnt Work.

Big Media and Big Telecoms complain loudly about the command and control 
way that the FCC doles out permission to use the airwaves. Command and control 
doesn't work well for media democracy either. One connecting thread among the 
various community based wireless systems that are popping up around the country 
is the excitement in the voices of those involved in building them who see the 
tantalizing possibility looming closely over them that they can create 
self-sustaining and self-reliant communications at the local level. Instead of 
being dependent on government subsidies forever, small for profits and 
non-profits all over the country are finding ways to bring access to the public 
for free in a sustainable manner.

Smart radio has a role to play in correcting some of the oversights of recent 
current communications policy. Lets tour a few of the failures:

The North End of Springfield Massachusetts is one of the poorest areas in the 
state. The public library provides internet access, open one week day per week 
from 9 am to 5 pm. It is difficult to imagine successfully looking for a job or 
working on a school assignment with this level of access. Yet from the 
fly-over perspective of policy makers, people on the North End have access.

Yet for some pressing needs "access" is not even on the table. In the summer of 
1995, over 700 people died in Chicago in a record heat wave. That's more than 
twice the number of people that died in the Great Chicago Fire. Although it was 
an unprecedented health crisis, the media at the time did not treat it as a 
serious crisis. In Eric Klinenberg's five year study of the deaths published in 
his book Heat Wave he identifies the victims as primarily poor, 
socially-isolated, elderly men. Though health workers were aware of the dire 
circumstances, the public at large was not informed because the story wasn't 
reported. Unlike YUPPIES, BUPPIES, and TWEENS, poor socially isolated elderly 
men do not rank as a powerful consumer category. The media, in their role as 
mediators of information, missed the boat with dire consequences. A fitting 
epitaph for these unfortunate men might be, "Trickle down media democracy 
worked no better for us than trickle-down economics."

It is likely that if we had a team of Eric Klinenbergs to study communities 
across the country, we would find similar stories everywhere. In Immokalee, 
Florida, a public health advisory circulated on the local media told residents 
not drink the water due to bacterial contamination. Local officials had no idea 
that their health advisory was unknown by the majority of the town's 
population- its migrant workers- because there was no media that served them. 
If local officials and local media are unable to see the communication gaps 
that exist within their own community, how are national policy makers supposed 
to shore these gaps?

Wherever old style communications infrastructure is implemented, these problems 
persist. Sarah Kamal, who works with international organizations to build radio 
stations in rural areas in Afghanistan points out that even well meaning 
experts can make assumptions that lead to very ineffective communication 
systems. In her article, Disconnected From Discourse: Women's Radio Listening 
in Rural Samangan, Afghanistan Kamal points out that the western organizations 
that are setting up radio in rural Afghanistan, made multiple assumptions that 
did not take into account barriers to relevant use of radio by women there. 
Linguistic differences, time of day of programming, women's access to radios, 
and relevance of programming were misunderstood by developers. The discomfort 
of western NGOs with the women's desires to hear Islamic programming was 
another difficulty. Kamal concludes, Current operational assumptions of 
western radio organizations have created significant gaps between what rural 
women require and what their media system provides.

Communication infrastructures created using smart radio could solve some of 
these problems. While the migrants in Immokalee now have an LPFM station to 
disseminate information about the next health crisis, the lengthy licensing 
process meant that the station was not up in enough time to solve that 
particular crisis. In the near future, inexpensive ad hoc networks like the 
ones that the US military is developing for battle will be able to pop up as 
cultural and civic needs emerge. It will be possible for the communications 
budget of say a county public health agency to be used to provide wifi phones 
to the chronically ill. If such a system had been in place in Chicago in 1995, 
hundreds of lives could have been saved.
Today, in the North End of Springfield, Massachusetts, students from Syracuse 
University led by Professor Murali Venkatesh have partnered with local 
community organizations to design a wireless network to replace the 
one-day-a-week access with pervasive community-wide access. Key features of 
this project include designing the project to be self-sustaining by using the 
network to serve local businesses. Taking into account the needs of the 
primarily poor, primarily Puerto Rican community, the design team is looking 
for ways to make the network useful to non-english speakers and people with low 
or no literacy. They want to make it easy for people in the community to 
generate local multimedia content. When issues of ease of use for creating and 
using multimedia content are settled, this kind of community network will 
expand on the role that is now filled by public access tv and community radio.

Beyond Community Media and Forward to Community Communications:

Communication is a powerful prophylactic. Over one hundred years of 
psychological, sociological, and medical research from nearly every 
sub-discipline and perspective all point in the same direction: quality of life 
and length of life is directly related to the quality of an individuals 
social ties. The more ties, and the stronger the ties, the stronger an 
individual is in every measurable way.

Current communications policy does not take this into account. Take for 
example, the phone system. The majority of Americans pay a fee to the phone 
companies so that low-income users can access the phone system for a reduced 
rate. But this reduced rate often translates into reduced service and reduced 
access. While it is desirable that low-income people are able to call 911 if 
their house is on fire, day to day communication needs are undermined by 
policies that undervalue the unquantified cost of quality of life. A holistic 
communication policy would recognize that people who are low-income, 
chronically ill, or marginalized for whatever reason often have stresses in 
their social networks and should encourage as much communication as is desired 
by such persons. Yet, the current structure is a subsidy to the phone industry 
that regressively taxes most users while providing limited service options to 
the poor. In essence, the policy says, If your house is on fire call 911, but 
if your roof leaks and your foundation is caving, we cant help you.

Smart radio and the age of pervasive connectivity can change this arrangement. 
First, because the infrastructure of wireless communication can accommodate 
multiple networks or cooperative sharing of a single network, there is no need 
for us to have to rely on handouts from monopolies like the phone companies. 
Because the technology is affordable enough for counties, municipalities, small 
businesses or non-profits to build and use, the design of wireless networks can 
be tailored to those who will actually be using them. It must be recognized 
that what constitutes meaningful or relevant or timely or 
necessary" communication cannot be determined by those who stand above the 
grassroots level. Many of the problems that are embedded in well-intentioned 
but far away policy makers designing a network that attempts to anticipate 
other peoples needs can be avoided by building from the ground up- with the 
users able to tweak their network to suit their needs.

II. Cost Does Equal Access. The Economic Case.

In a September 17, 2003 piece in the Washington Post, Rama Lakshmi reports 
Radiophony, an Indian lobby group for community radio, claims that villagers 
can set up a low-powered, do-it-yourself radio station -- with a half-watt 
transmitter, a microphone, antenna and a cassette player  for approximately 
$25. The group says such a station can reach about a third of a mile and cover 
a small village. Old fashioned low-powered analog radio is the communication 
choice for the worlds poorest people because it is the least expensive and 
easiest to use mass communication tool. Expanding the communication tools that 
rely on wireless and expanding the communication channels that are available 
via wireless should directly correlate with more accessible communication to 
more people. As smart radio makes possible orders of magnitude more 
communication over the same old airwaves, our expectations of what slice of the 
pie the public gets to use should increase magnitudnally as well.

Wi-Fi has already demonstrated that smart radio can be inexpensive and 
accessible for communities in the United States. The cost to implement the 
community network in Springfield, Mass today is estimated to be $60,000. Thats 
still a far cry from the $25 dollar LPFM stations in India. Like all computer 
technology the cost of smart radios is likely to decrease over time. The 
largest computer chip manufacturer, Intel, is already making smart radio chips. 
Companies like Cisco, Microsoft, and Sony and are betting heavily on wireless 
technology. Wireless networks are not as easy to use or implement as 
old-fashioned radio- yet. The wonderful opportunities that smart radio brings 
to us will have arrived when they come down to the price and ease of use of 

Use of consumer grade technology means the communications infrastructure is 
affordable to many, and  if we work at it- maybe everybody. There are ways 
that the cost of smart radio can be made unnecessarily expensive for the little 
guy. Imagine, for example, that the government passed a rule that said anyone 
that drove on a public road must drive a Mercury Cougar. Ridiculous? Unfair? 
Yet, this is analogous to what the FCC mandated AM and FM broadcasters to do. A 
proprietary technology called IBOC, partially owned by ClearChannel must be 
used by any AM or FM broadcaster who wants to broadcast digitally. Big Media 
and the Big Telecoms must not be allowed to lock the public out of use of the 
airwaves by locking up control of key technologies. When the government 
mandates that everyone who wants to use the airwaves must use a specific 
corporations product, it gives that corporation a veto on free speech.

Another way the public could be cut out of the wireless loop is through 
propertizing of the airwaves. Propertizing" is a term thrown about in 
Washington by a group called the propertizers and it describes the mental 
hopscotch that needs to be played en route to privatizing the airwaves. Yes, 
the same great minds who dreamed up pollution credits for mid-west air and 
for-profit water for South American peasants have their eyes set on the 
airwaves. Variations on the theme include transferring the work of the FCC over 
to a private entity, permanently selling off the rights to broadcast to the 
highest bidder, and secondary markets for spectrum- like the ones we have for 
energy (think Enron). Imagine ClearChannel or The Carlyle Group owned the 
color green and anyone who wanted to use green had to pay them a fee. That is a 
literal analogy of what the propertizers want to do.

III. Ye Olde Dumb Network. - The First Amendment Case.

If it is possible that new communication technologies can evolve into 
infrastructures that allow people broad-based direct cultural and civic 
participation via the airwaves, as many of us believe to be the case, than the 
arguments of 70 years ago that allowed for monopoly control of communications 
over the airwaves may no longer be legally excusable. According to public 
interest telecomm lawyer Harold Feld of Media Access Project, "The First 
Amendment prohibits the government from granting exclusive rights in 
communication unless the physical characteristics of the medium require 
exclusivity as a precondition for productive use."

The framers of the constitution did more than pay lip service to free speech. 
When we begin to talk about building a state-of-the-art communication 
infrastructure that values everyones right to communicate, the response is 
usually an instantaneous and guttural, THAT WILL NEVER HAPPEN! But this is 
completely untrue. It already happened at least once.

When the American Revolutionaries met for their first big meeting at the 
Continental Congress, it isnt surprising that one of the very first things on 
the table was putting in place their own communication system that would not be 
subject to the King. A former royal postmaster who had lost his job for his 
political beliefs and who was also printer and publisher of The Pennsylvania 
Gazette - Ben Franklin- was charged with setting up an alternative postal 
service. Back in the 1700s, mail was not only for letters to grandma, it was 
the only way for information or news to circulate. In those days, censorship 
could be heavy handed. Saying the wrong thing could get you burned at the stake 
or locked up for life. King George also used other clever laws like taxes on 
newspapers to control the flow of content and dissent. Even if one were able to 
speak ones mind, political dissenters would be subject to spying as 
traditionally in Europe the mail system was also a spy system for the royalty.

It is truly astonishing and revolutionary that after they won their war, the 
Americans did not replicate the Europeans, but instead embarked on creating a 
communication system that reflected the Enlightenment value of Free Speech. 
Mail carriers were not spies. Control of content was exclusively in the hands 
of the end user,theconsumer or as they used to say the individual. 
One of the first acts of the first federal congress was to create a subsidized 
communication system to tie the whole country together, including unprofitable 
rural areas. As Robert McChesney, Paul Starr and others point out, in its day, 
the postal system was the best way to provide the maximum amount of people with 
the most free speech.

Today, important decisions are being made at the national and international 
levels about where the controls should be placed on who can communicate with 
whom. Much of the decisions revolve around what kind of networks can be built. 
Network theorist David Isenberg calls for a Stupid Network- one where the 
network pays no attention to whats coming over it, and where all of the 
intelligence exists at the edge of the network- the user and the users 
computer. Franklin would say, Been there, done that.

Convergence is here.

At the New America Foundations Pervasive Connectivity conference this April, 
FCC Chief Engineer Ed Thomas said, People have been talking about convergence 
for fifteen years." Convergence is now here. Of course, Mr. Thomas is 
talking about the convergence of communication systems. But it also means that 
those of us who desire a communications infrastructure that widens and deepens 
the circle of meaningful participation can converge as well. Radio activists 
are no longer just radio activists, tv activists are no longer just tv 
activists, and computer activists are no longer just computer activists. The 
possibilities of smart radio and questions of fair use of spectrum even reach 
out to the environmental movement. Common Assets Defense Fund takes the 
position that spectrum is a natural resource.

As the wireless infrastructure opens new possibilities, many questions that go 
to the heart of public interest in communication deserve to be revisited: How 
quickly and how easily can communities/individuals solve a communications need 
or desire? What governmental entities or what corporations do they need to go 
through in order to resolve a communication need? What communication systems 
promote the highest degree of communication self-reliance for communities? How 
do we assess the depth and breadth of meaningful civic and cultural 
communication? In light of so many more channels of communication possible- 
what can we do with them? How far can consumer grade technology and consumer 
based infrastructure be pushed in the direction of putting citizens in the 
decision-making position? Who will decide what level of civic and cultural 
participation we can engage in and with whom we can engage?

The wisdom among our communications architects in Washington is that the public 
does not understand, does not care to understand, and cannot be made to 
understand what is at stake in current spectrum reform debates. Smart radio has 
created a feast of communication possibilities. We must change current wisdom 
by demanding a seat at the banquet even if we have to slip in through the 
backdoor sideways.

Fact-Sheet on New Spectrum Technologies

Todays digital technologies differ from the devices of the past, which 
required regulation to prevent interference among signals. There are several 
ways in which new smart digital devices transmit and receive data in ways 
that distinguish between signals, allowing users to share the airwaves.

Cognitive Radio: Same thing as Smart Radio. Use cognitive radio when you 
want to sound obnoxious. Smart Radios are software defined. They would be 
better named Polite Radios because they cooperate very well with other wireless 
devices by listening before they transmit a signal. They can detect other 
nearby signals and avoid interfering with them. The imaginatively named Next 
Generation of smart radio is being developed by the Department of Defense. It 
will allow the DOD to set up complete communications systems without any 
interference to or from any existing broadcasting.

Software Defined Radio: using software to process the radio signals, these 
radios can also receive and transmit across a broad range of frequencies. 
Software radio is highly adaptable. For example, cellular telephone radio can 
transmit broadcast television signals. They can change transmission protocols 
on the fly and do many other nifty things.

WIFI: A cordless phone for computers.- Eli Noam.

Mesh Networks are based on small low-power two way radios. Each node in the 
network is both receiving and transmitting- capturing and retransmitting data- 
sent by other devices in the network. Each node that is added strengthens the 
networks capacity by sharing the workload.

Spread-spectrum refers to several techniques to transmit a signal over a wide 
range of frequencies. Spread spectrum signals are transparent to other users.

Open Spectrum- describes mechanisms that allow for facilitated spectrum 
sharing. and key words are unlicensed, underlay, ultrawideband and 
spread-spectrum. Unlicensed spectrum sets aside frequency bands for use with no 
exclusive rights. Unlicensed exists today, in the bands shared by computer 
devices such as cordless phones, and these bands are used by wifi (wireless 
internet) networks.

Underlay allows unlicensed users to coexist in licensed bands, by making their 
signals invisible and nonintrusive to other users. Ultrawideband devices 
transmit pulses of very short duration in order to avoid interfering with 
preexisting users of that same spectrum band.

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