“Who Needs Spectrum?” What users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference

Machiavelli from Ofcom

Yesterday I went to an event called “Who Needs Spectrum?” What users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference organised jointly by Cambridge Wireless and the Digital Communications Knowledge Transfer Network at The Møller Centre in Churchill College. There were lots of interesting talks, especially around harmonisation and regulation. I’m not a radio frequency expert, I’m more interested in the user scenarios radio spectrum enables, so I came away with an outsider’s view of some of the discussions.

It was initially surprising how the battle lines were drawn in the debate around harmonization. On the one hand there were those who felt governments should step in and regulate the technologies that were allowed in different spectrum bands to obtain harmonisation across Europe; while on the other hand there were those who thought that the market should be left unfettered to decide for itself. That divide isn’t surprising. What floored me was who was on which side. The government (Ofcom) wanted to keep as light a touch as possible so that the market was given free reign. The industrialists wanted heavy handed intervention. This was strange to the point that the (excellent) speaker from Ofcom (William Webb, who Richard had once as a visitor to the lab) put up a slide as a homage to Machiavelli! Luckily I lived through the Thatcher years so nothing phases me 😉 As the discussion progressed I did start to work out why the protagonists had chosen the sides that they had. William paraphrased this Machiavelli quote:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

So, the current market incumbents want increased regulation as it ensures their markets and allows them to more easily build pan European services. But Ofcom want to ensure that the market itself decides since they feel new entrants are more likely to be able to innovate new services under a lighter regime, new entrants who wont have a voice currently, either because they are too small to dedicate time to lobbying, too cautious to reveal their game-plan to their competitors, or because they just don’t realise that regulators are looking for consultation.

Another interesting point William made was around license exempt spectrum and innovation. We’ve argued that leaving portions of the radio frequency spectrum unlicensed will encourage innovation and new markets will emerge, as happened with wifi. William agreed that there was innovation in unlicensed spectrum, but argued that there was no evidence that there is more innovation in unlicensed spectrum. William argued that just because an industry is old it doesn’t mean it wasn’t innovative, and so licensed spectrum is littered with innovative services. William went further and argued that the value generated by services in licensed spectrum is actually greater than that generated in unlicensed. I can’t wait to sit down with more economically minded colleagues than I and work these issues through.

The event closed with John Burns from Aegis Systems talking about spectrum use in the public sector. Spectrum ownership by the military is seen as an under utilized national resource, which is true, but John did a great job of showing us what parts of the spectrum are in use and he explained why technologies like radar need seemingly extravagant swathes of spectrum in order to work properly.

My Notes from “Who Needs Spectrum?” What users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference

I’ve put my photos up on flickr, and the slides should go up on the Cambridge Wireless site.

There were other issues that struck me during the day. One was the mismatch between my expectation of what would be discussed and what actually was. Looking at the subtitle for the event “what users want, what’s becoming available and technologies that will make a difference” I’d expected lots of time to be spent discussing users, by which I meant consumers of spectrum enabled services. But that’s not what “users” meant. For this audience the users were service providers, broadcasters and cellular operators who ‘use’ spectrum to provide services to consumers. I guess I should have spotted something was awry when, in an event of over 60 delegates I was the only one wearing jeans! As Dorothy might say “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Redmond anymore”.

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