Regulation, not physics, is preventing the more efficient use of spectrum, according to Forbes magazine contributing editor George Gilder and other free market economy advocates. “Spectrum is not a public trust or a natural resource. It is only what we create,” Gilder said at last month's Shared Airwaves/Shared Content symposium in Washington D.C.

Gilder opined that current government policy is focused on preventing interference generated by existing users rather than promoting a sharing of the airwaves, despite the fact radio transmissions only rarely interfere with each other. “The federal government has taken an abundance and rendered it scarce,” he said.

To support his argument, Gilder referenced a bandwidth study prepared by symposium sponsor New America Foundation that monitored and documented 108 MHz of unused licensed UHF spectrum at the non-profit public-policy institute's office in the heart of Washington D.C. “Why do we call spectrum scarce?” he asked.

Calling radios “dumb and blind,” Gilder likened current spectrum use to placing a single car per lane on a multi-lane highway. He said smart radios that take advantage of today's computer processing power and are designed to operate as cars do on the highway — “not to collide or go too fast” — would create a spectrum bounty. Gilder pointed to the rapid and unpredicted growth of applications in the 2.4 GHz band to illustrate the potential of open spectrum usage.

Technology analyst Kevin Werbach, the founder of Supernova Group who served as FCC counsel for new technology policy from 1994-1998, built on Gilder's remarks by noting that the limiting factor in spectrum use seemed to be the “speed of Washington” rather than the speed of light. He also bemoaned the stagnation of radio innovation. “We consider a ten-year-old PC to be a door stop, but we expect a 50-year-old AM radio to work perfectly,” he said.

Werbach said government mandates on spectrum assignments tended to produce the cheapest devices with very low capabilities and argued that eliminating such mandates would produce rapid development of new devices that would employ a plethora of techniques to improve the efficiency of spectrum use. He and others believe such an approach would enable devices to peacefully co-exist and ultimately result in the opening of more unlicensed spectrum.

The New America Foundation used the symposium to unveil its 52-page policy paper, “Radio Revolution, The Coming Age of Unlicensed Wireless.” Published in conjunction with the Public Knowledge advocacy group and written by Werbach, the document discusses current spectrum use, the shift to smart devices, and scenarios for unlicensed spectrum usage. It calls for more dedicated unlicensed spectrum, which could come from the return of analog broadcast television licenses and the restructuring of underutilized bands such as UHF television.

Shared unlicensed “underlay” applications using ultra-wideband and low-power techniques also are suggested, as is “opportunistic sharing,” which would make underutilized frequencies available for use by smart radios that can sense and respond to the local spectral environment.

During a panel discussion of the paper's implications, Kevin Kahn, fellow and director of Intel's communications technology laboratory, noted the positive impact that open spectrum in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands has delivered over the past three years. “What would 850 MHz more do? Or a few Gigahertz,” he said.

Kahn added that Intel was concerned about existing stakeholders throwing up unnecessary roadblocks to innovations such as ultra-wideband and about the generally slow pace of regulation. “Everyone [at the FCC] was generally pleased that it took four years to reach agreement on UWB,” he said. “That's 2.5 generations of CPU development.”