Deregulation lobby scores UK KO

Spectrum free-for-all

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The UK's Ofcom has become the first telecoms regulator to spark a spectrum free-for-all, opening up the airwaves to "market forces". License holders will be able to do what they want with 70 per cent of the spectrum and exchange it with other holders: effectively giving the green light for massive media and telecomms consolidation. It's a victory for a well-funded lobby - Intel and Microsoft are amongst the leading backers - and it's a favorite idea of right-wing US think tanks and ideologues.

Ofcom will drop almost all of the usual competency qualifications and customer obligations. The regulator will however "continue to monitor and act against interference between spectrum users" but it isn’t clear how it will enforce this if it doesn't have the power to invoke the ultimate sanction, and revoke a license. In fact the "trading" structure could have be designed to ensure that the corporates are always one step ahead of any public interest watchdog.

The consultation period ended on November 12, and the regulator sounded a note of caution yesterday. "Spectrum liberalisation is not without risk, as radio signals can interfere with each other, resulting in a poor experience for the user and loss of revenue for the operator," it said in a release. "To offset this risk, Ofcom intends to begin by looking at licence change applications on a case-by-case basis to determine the potential for interference."

Fifteen years ago most states exercised rigid control over the radio spectrum. The most valuable parts of the spectrum, such as lower frequencies that penetrate walls better, are allocated to commercial television and large parts are reserved for the military. With ever-improving technology, such as radio that scavenges for unused portions of spectrum, or competes benignly in certain bands, some technology advocates have chaffed at the very idea of centralized regulation. The move to deregulate certain portions for mobile phone use has been a great success: with GSM proving that competition and consensus aren't mutually exclusive.

But this isn't good enough for some techno utopians, who under the cuddly banner of "open spectrum" have pushed for total deregulation. They've argued that unlike every other finite resource, spectrum is infinitely renewable - although this depends on technology that hasn't been invented yet. Ofcom explicity rejects this notion.

There's also a deep global political dimension. The deregulation lobby - which has compared spectrum regulation to Stalin's Russia - is backed by US corporations and think tanks who prefer to do business differently, free of social regulation. These interests include companies who lost out on the explosion of the 2G mobile phone business (Intel and Microsoft) and financial investors who make their money from creating markets, rather than cleaning up after the elephant. For such advocates, eternal choice is always preferable to successful social outcomes, such as phones that work. And the US historically has always preferred to find new frontiers than fix stuff that's broken.

Investors have also been turned on - as you'd expect - to the speculative potential of an idea that depends on technology that hasn't been invented yet. Where there's an X, there's a Bubble.

Now you'd think that on Slashdot, the move to deregulation would be welcomed with the sound of assault rifles being fired into the air in celebration. But as we write, the top two comments sum up the situation rather more succinctly than we have.

"Great idea..." writes 'barcodez', "Because privatising British Rail and British Telecom went so well." Replies poster 'snart barfunz',

"Exactly - just look at the BBC. Still broadcasting in mono to steam powered bakelite radios. Privatising them would force them to embrace new technology like TV, digital radio and the web."

"I'm sure Clear Channel would make a great replacement for the FCC."

A subsequent comment wonders if snart isn't being ironic. He isn't. The BBC has proved that when it needs to be, it can be both more efficient and more innovative than a privately owned corporation. BBC News Online delivers more content more efficiently with a third of the staff of its rivals; and the BBC's remarkable R&D operation at Kingswood Warren is pioneering multicast and open source audio codecs.

So why are even hardcore techies wary of the spectrum deregulation lobby? Perhaps because if something seems too good to be true - it usually is.®

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