Wireless Communications Could Bring Information Power to the People

Date: 15 Aug 1995 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Wireless Communications Could Bring Information Power to the People

by David Morris

August 15, 1995

Here’s another example of why paying attention to technology matters. On May 24, 1995 Apple Computer submitted a request to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Because the media’s eyes were distracted by the Congressional fight over the telecommunications bill, Apple’s action went largely unnoticed.

But in the long run, Apple’s petition may turn out to be far more important to you and me–average Americans–than who wins the shootout at the telecommunications corral. For Apple is asking the FCC to allow computers that communicate through the air using radio waves free access to a large slice of the unclaimed part of the radio spectrum. If the FCC agrees it may spur a communications revolution that will make the battle between the phone and cable companies seem trivial.

Keep in mind that neither the phone nor the cable corporations control the Internet, the backbone of our information highway. By one estimate, market revenues from the Internet may grow from $300 million in 1995 to $10 billion in 2000. The Internet Society estimates that more than 46,000 computer networks are linked to the Internet. By the end of 1996, almost 200,000 will be.

“Most of the public sparring going on right now involves staking out turf to build the on-ramps (to the Internet)”, observes Bill Frezza of Wireless Computing Associates. “And because everyone presumes that this will be done by stringing wires…attention naturally focuses on wire-pullers. But pulling new wires often requires digging up the streets (and) pulling wires takes time–a long time. So why not just skip over the whole mess by slapping an antenna on your PC?”

Apple envisions a time when every computer will have a built-in radio receiver and transmitter. It argues that only a wireless infrastructure can bring low cost, high speed communications to everyone. Wiring up every classroom, library, home and rural community for high speed communications is prohibitively expensive. The cost of hard-wiring classrooms, for example, may run as high as $250,000 per school, or nearly $30 billion dollars to connect each of America’s K-12 schools to the information highway. That is simply not going to happen. But put a wireless computer on a desk and that desk is already connected.

Two obstacles stand in the way of a wireless future. First, the FCC has allotted personal wireless communicators only a tiny slice of the radio spectrum, a narrow country lane when the equivalent of an interstate highway is needed to transmit pictures, graphics and all the data intensive information the modern age requires. Apple would solve this problem by giving wireless computers a slice of the spectrum thirty times wider than they now have.

The second obstacle to a communications revolution for the rest of us is that both wired and wireless communications companies own the wires or airwaves. That allows them to charge by the minute. And that puts the information highway out of the reach of tens of millions of Americans. Apple proposes to solve this problem by allowing free access, so long as one transmission does not interfere with another.

The FCC has favored auctions as a way to sell off unclaimed parts of the radio spectrum. Apple disagrees. “The Commission’s obligation to allocate spectrum in the public interest cannot be ‘delegated’ to an auction.” Auctions allow a frequency to be owned by those “who might (or might not) permit others to use it for a fee. By analogy, it would be a country club, not a public park. And while country clubs have value (at least to those who can afford to join), they are fundamentally different from public parks.”

Apple wants a portion of the currently unclaimed airwaves to become a public park. Anyone can walk through them. Phone companies and cable companies have nothing against public parks. So long as they own the paths. Phone and cable companies are proposing that the unlicensed spectrum be limited to transmissions within buildings. No community wide networks would be allowed.

Meanwhile wireless computing is taking off. Some 300,000 computers already have wireless capacity. By 1998 three million will. Companies are beginning to offer wireless networks as good as or better than wired networks. Metricom, a Silicon Valley company, is leading the way. Its network consists of toaster sized radios on telephone poles and buildings. By the end of 1995 Metricom will offer low cost community wide data services in Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta and Washington.

And best of all, Metricom charges its members a low monthly fee for unlimited use.

The information industry is declaring its independence from the communications industry. And that makes possible a much more democratic information future. Apple’s communications marketplace does not operate “from the ‘center out’ with all networks and services designed and offered by the owner.” Instead its services are designed and offered by the users. Apple calls it a “network as seen from the ‘outside in’.”

Today we’re obsessed with Congress and the White House. But the key decision as to whether we will have a truly democratic, universal information future may be made in the FCC. Stay tuned.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.