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Tech fest 'net activists offer free 'Super Wi-Fi': Now go tell the FCC

Spectrum's not just for mobile giants, yeah?

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SXSW A campaign against the selling off of TV spectrum by the national regulator is offering free Wi-Fi, backhauled over newly-released TV spectrum, in the hope that those using it will sign a petition for greater availability.

The free wireless is available at the South by Southwest Festival which kicked off in Austin, Texas, on Friday. The hotspots are standard kit, but they're connected to the rest of the internet over low-frequency connections in television spectrum which is locally vacant, termed "White Space" by technologists, and "Super Wi-Fi" by marketers - but whatever it's called, it only became legal this month.

White Space devices, which use an online database to work out what frequencies are unoccupied locally, have been legal to use in parts of the US since late last year, but on 1 March it became legal to use such devices anywhere in the USA - which is why the "We <heart> WiFi" group has decided to use them as backhaul for the SXSW Wi-Fi deployment.

The campaign is another spinoff from Fight For The Future, the group responsible for The Internet Defence League, with its adorable cat logo, and the venomous attacks on the ITU which prevented the blue-hatted body from imposing order on wresting control from the freedom-loving mega-corporations currently in charge of the Internet.

This time the activists want signatures on a petition for more unlicensed radio spectrum, asking that less of it be sold off to mobile network operators. It's an interesting debate as it forces regulators to examine what, or whom, they actually represent.

Sell it off... or free it up?

The FCC, like the UK's Ofcom, has a remit of ensuring maximum value is extracted from the airwaves, and both had settled on the comfortable solution that auctioning to the highest bidder would motivate the buyer into squeezing out all the value they could.

Sadly, for those enjoying the revenue involved, there are now several examples demonstrating how that can fail, while the busiest radio spectrum in the world (and thus the best exploited) is one they're giving away for free.

In the UK we have Qualcomm's ownership of L Band: 32.9MHz of decent spectrum which cost the chip giant more eight million quid back in 2008 and has been lying empty ever since. Then we have the 3G TDD bands; 20Mhz of the spectacular 1999 3G auctions which is marked for a technology that was never developed (TDD W-CDMA) so has lain fallow for decades.

Meanwhile the 2.4GHz band is packed to the gunnels with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and all manner of rubbish, providing inestimable value to the national economy even if it has left the governmental coffers bereft.

Regulators which take their role seriously are therefore obliged to look at freeing up more spectrum, and that's what both the FCC and Ofcom are doing.

The problem is the irreversible nature of giving up spectrum: taking it back is hard and that makes regulators very reluctant. But White Space allows regulators to hand over some spectrum for a bit and then take it back - within hours if opinion changes. Those lobbying against it are more concerned that the people will refuse to give it up rather than concerning themselves with any technical problem.

And those lobbying are powerful: network operators with all the right connections. The White Space crowd have power too, Google and Microsoft are both well versed in lobbying Capitol Hill these days, but the activists running We <heart> WiFi reckon more petitions are needed and won't stop until huge swathes of the radio spectrum are opened up for unlicensed use - or until a more fashionable cause comes along. ®

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