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The spectrum both surrounds us and passes through us. Made up of waves of energy that allow us to communicate the way we do today – through radio, television, mobile phones, wireless internet and more— spectrum is an invisible common link that ties our societies together. A global shift in spectrum regulation is currently under way with regulatory reforms being developed and proposed in several countries. As the internet and wireless communication increasingly merge into a singular form of communication, we will be presented with unique opportunities to adapt to open, trusting and collaborative forms of regulation and technology use. This introduction to developing a policy on open spectrum by spectrum expert Evan Light for APC, breaks down what spectrum is, how it works and why governments with under-served communities stand to gain so much from opening up the spectrum to more users and uses.

What is spectrum?

Spectrum is the electromagnetic waves like x-rays, visible light (both light that we produce and light that comes from the sun and other stars), radio and television signals, radio telescope signals used to explore outer space, satellite signals, cellular telephone signals, wireless internet signals and various other forms of energy. It is the potential for space to transmit energy (not the air we breathe but the space in which that air exists). The importance of the spectrum lies not so much in what it is but rather in what it allows us to do, and is limited only by the current capabilities of technology and the ways in which it is managed.

What is commonly known as the radio spectrum is a subset of the entire electromagnetic spectrum that has historically been used for radio-based communications such as radio, television, cellular telephony, wireless internet, etc., which is divided into sections called “frequencies” that make up larger sections called “bands”.

How does spectrum help us communicate?

Spectrum is central to the way we communicate. For decades, broadcast radio has been the most accessible media, but today, spectrum also serves as the primary infrastructure for the cellular telephone networks. Similarly, spectrum is used for wireless internet access in a variety of manners. As wireless communication and the internet become increasingly inter-connected, new forms of regulation and governance that reflect this new way of communicating and what it means to our communities will have to be addressed. However, the very technologies that enable this communication are in constant development and, thus, make it particularly difficult to determine how to best regulate them.

The general approach to regulating spectrum has not changed much since the 1930s, when it was believed that spectrum was a limited physical resource that must be regulated to a very high degree in order to assure that interference between signals would not occur. For this reason, frequencies are assigned for specific uses and overseen quite closely by national regulators as well as an international system of governance.

However, as technology rapidly changes, so should approaches to managing it. In order to assure broad and egalitarian access to wireless communication, policy-makers, civil society organisations, industry and users themselves should begin to consider flexible forms of spectrum regulation that will enable the spectrum to be used by everyone to their fullest potential in terms of social, cultural and economic development.

How can spectrum be available to everyone?

Open spectrum management is an approach to spectrum management that is, above all, based on sharing. An open spectrum policy would allow various users to utilise whatever parts of the spectrum are available without obtaining permission from anybody beforehand. Sharing the spectrum in such a way would create a “spectrum commons” and would require a simple set of rules for communicating with one another and making decisions.

Wireless connectivity offers great potential to deliver internet and telephone connectivity in developing countries. Strategies for meeting information and communication technology (ICT) development goals in developing nations can be designed according to the various approaches to communication and to the needs and current capacity available in each locale.

The use of wireless technology in developing nations can aid them in reducing the digital divide while being adapted to real infrastructural limitations. For instance, wireless technology typically uses less electricity, meaning that alternative power sources can be employed. If open spectrum management is introduced with wireless technology, communities can more easily build their own communication networks. This means less of an administrative and financial burden would be placed on the central government and regulator, possibly freeing funds to facilitate the construction of these very networks. In addition, communities would have the opportunity to learn about these technologies and make direct decisions concerning their use.

What are the current issues surrounding spectrum?

A number of important technological debates and developments are currently taking place that are shaping the future of spectrum-based communication and the potential for introducing open spectrum management.

Digital dividend: Around the world, countries are migrating their broadcast television systems from analogue transmitters and receivers to digital ones. This is important to the current discussion for three reasons.
1) Digital broadcasting utilises the spectrum more efficiently, generally allowing for six channels in the space where one analogue channel could exist, thereby allowing space for new broadcasters to come online.
2) The spectrum freed by this digital transition can then be used for new purposes such as high-speed wireless internet, or be set aside for unlicensed and unregulated public use.
3) In order for this transition to be successful, all television broadcasters will need to install new transmitters, all television consumers will need to purchase new televisions or special receivers, and new policy will need to be developed to manage the transition and the new system that will result from it. This imposes a significant financial burden on both broadcasters and consumers. Introducing open spectrum management in this way however, can occur immediately without affecting pre-existing communication networks.

WiMax: WiMax is a wireless communications standard designed for high speeds over long distances. WiMax and similar technology could serve as an infrastructure for a spectrum commons as it can be implemented on a large scale without licensing spectrum to any particular entity1

Releasing government and military spectrum: In many countries, a huge portion of the spectrum is reserved for government and military use. Several countries have already begun to negotiate the release of this spectrum for other uses and to consider flexible shared use of the spectrum. Unlicensed use could, for example, be generally permitted but the military could have the right to sole use during wartime2.

How does broadcasting affect spectrum use?

Broadcasting utilises a large amount of spectrum without the guarantee that any communication occurs. The fact that a radio station is broadcasting does not mean that all radios in its range are tuned to it but usually means that nobody else has the right to broadcast on that frequency. Instead of one broadcaster using a frequency to perhaps communicate to nobody in particular, broadband is built on two premises: frequencies should be shared, and communication takes place between a transmitter and an intended receiver. Many people can share the same speaking space and communicate cooperatively. Transitioning from a broadcast approach to communication and regulation to a broadband approach can help enable more people to communicate.

What’s ahead for open spectrum?

A global shift in spectrum regulation is currently under way with regulatory reforms, such as legislation that combines telecommunications with radio and television, being developed and proposed in several countries. As the internet and wireless communication come closer together in both form and function, we will have to adapt our regulatory traditions to open, trusting and collaborative forms of regulation and technology use.

Open spectrum management is an opportunity to demystify both technology and regulation, to experiment with locally controlled forms of ownership and decision-making and to create communication systems that directly meet local needs and capacities.

Read the full length brief by Evan Light Open spectrum for development: Policy brief for APC. The brief was written as a part of the APC’s work on Open spectrum for development.

Evan Light is a PhD candidate in communication at the University of Quebec in Montreal. His current research looks at spectrum policy and water policy in Canada and Uruguay, concepts of autonomy and the construction and democratisation of knowledge.

1 Wellenius, Bjorn and Isabel Neto. (2008). Managing the Radio Spectrum: Framework for Reform in Developing Countries. Washington, D.C.: The World Bank. Pg. 68.

2 Ibid. Pg. 69.

Photo by teachandlearn. Used with permission under Creative Content licensing.