Wireless Spectrum: Defining the Commons in Cyberspace
Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig believes information in the Digital Age should be treated very differently from what current law and regulatory traditions might suggest. How will these new ways color the wireless spectrum?Skepticism about whether a "spectrum commons" could work most likely springs from the way weve been trained to think about "spectrum." A hundred years of careless talk has led many to think spectrum is a thing. Worse, a hundred years of careless talk has led most people to think that when radios suffer "interference" it is because the radio waves have, in some sense, collided. Both notions are simply wrong. There is no such thing as "spectrum" that gets "used" the way a pasture gets used. Spectrum is not a thing. And what we think of as "interference" is not an issue of radio waves; its an issue in the receiver. Clarifying these two misconceptions will go a long way toward a greater understanding of a spectrum commons. Think about a conversation in the middle of a party. Lots of people are talking around you; there could be plenty of other noise in the room. The TV could be blaring or a police siren could be wailing outside. But despite all this "noise" you are still quite likely able to carry on a conversation. And thats because (1) humans are intelligent receivers and (2) sound waves (like radio waves) dont collide and fall to the ground; they essentially pass through each other without any "damage." Even if two people utter exactly the same sounds at exactly the same moment, people can hear the two speakers and distinguish their messages.
Older radio technology would not produce such efficiency in an analogous situation. If two transmitters tried to transmit on the same channel at the same time, then a receiver would not report two different transmissions. The receiver would instead report interference, but not because of any flaw in the radio transmissions. The flaw is in the receivers.