Will Spectrumrights Fare Better than Copyrights?

I'm fascinated by the notion of software defined radios.  In particular, I'm fascinated by the potential for hackers to take over the radio waves like they have so effectively dominated the internet.  Consider the following futurological daydream:

1) FCC mandates all US cellphone carriers must accept any compatible device onto their networks.

2) TuxPhone quickly establishes connectivity with the major carriers.

3) TuxPhone adopts support for the Android application stack and becomes a feasible (albeit chunky) daily cellphone for hackers.

4) TuxPhone is ported to the GNU Radio platform, thereby replacing "pre-approved hardware modules" with firmware/software.

So the above isn't too far fetched -- all those guys have an interest in joining forces, and everything they're doing is in line with conceivable law (assuming (1) happens).

But once the above is done, there will be an easily available platform for hackers to ply their trade.  In particular, there will be a widely available, low-cost platform with sufficient "non-infringing purpose" such that the devices themselves cannot be restricted.  At first it'll start out relatively benign:

5) .public adopts TuxPhone as the development platform of choice for real-world testing of a completely encrypted, wireless, decentralized communication mesh.

But then it'll start to get more interesting:

6) A researcher submits a patch to .public enabling frequency-hopping spread spectrum communication, clearly marked in such a fashion that it would be illegal to use it outside of certain, default frequency ranges.  But those ranges will be user definable, and it will be easy to override the default and set the range to "all".

7) Someone packages it into an extremely simple application where anybody can enter in a password that serves as the "seed" for the pseudorandom frequency generator.  Any two individuals (in radio range) with the same password can thus generate the same random set of frequencies and thereby hop in sequence to the same frequencies.  (Though realistically it'll first just establish an SSH session using public keys over a standard narrowband connection, exchange the symmetric key (aka random seed), and then jump.  Passwords are so passe.)

8) Somebody figures out how to make a spread-spectrum repeater that also happens to serve as a fantastic narrowband repeater.  Thus mid-range mesh communications gain the benefits of pseudorandom frequency hopping, but in a way that isn't obviously illegal (because it also enables legal narrowband meshes).

9) As technology improves, there becomes no reason *not* to broadcast at the maximum legal power.  Thus the coverage and capacity of each node in the mesh increases.  In parallel, as costs fall and average utility increases, the density of the mesh also increases.  Taken together, identifying the precise location and identity of any given node becomes more and more difficult -- encouraging more egregiously illegal behaviors as enforcement fails.

10) Ultimately, mesh coverage is "good enough" for anybody to exchange high-bandwidth information with anybody within a hundred miles (especially in urban areas, where most people live).  On top of this, secure tunnels through "global" networks (satellite, fiberoptic) become as plentiful as anonymizing proxies are today.

Witness the start of perfectly secure, untraceable, global communication.

Legally, this starts to blur the meaning of spectrum ranges, which the major carriers have paid billions to lock up.  But technically, it'll be very hard to stop.  I'm curious if the futile battle for spectrum rights will play out in a similar way to the currently futile battle for copyright.

All this despite the fact that spread spectrum technology *obviates* the need for fixed spectrum bands.  The resulting technology might actually be *better*: more reliable, higher capacity, cheaper, and more flexible than narrowband technology.  Thus while the "old guard" becomes increasingly dependent upon legal war to maintain their narrowband business models (tied to ridiculously expensive spectrum licenses), the hackers will have shown that they're no longer needed -- just like they're doing today with copyright.

But the most unfortunate re-enactment of all will be if the full potential for spread-spectrum, frequency-hopping, software-controlled radios is stymied in its most crucial phases by entrenched interests, preventing any legitimate business investment in this groundbreaking technology and instead driving it underground into the hands of pirates and insurgents.

Sound familiar?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...



Every revolution has its political issues. Free software for building radios is troublesome to some people. In the US, we've run into opposition from the Motion Picture Association of America and its attempt with the Broadcast Flag to restrict the kinds of receivers that can be built for over-the-air digital TV.

The US Federal Communications Commission has issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) concerning Cognitive Radio Technologies and Software Defined Radios. Several troublesome issues are raised in the NPRM, including restricting the sale of high-speed digital-to-analog converters, requirements for digital signatures or similar methods to keep unauthorized software out of software radio hardware and new restrictions on radios built for the amateur radio market.

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