The Evaporation of the FCC
"Necessity is the mother of invention" – Plato
Communication is a curious phenomenon, primarily because it is an abstract concept and is entirely limited by ones ingenuity and creativity. Over the millennia our predecessors have designed numerous methods, systems and contraptions to enable communication between peoples, businesses and civilizations. From the homing pigeon, to the pony express, to Morse code and AM radio – these are all (dated) forms by which information can be exchanged from entity to entity.
And some of these entities have vested interests in disrupting, disabling and commandeering the communication between various parties. One current regime traversing the globe and in particular, the United States, is the Federal Communications Commission .
The Federal Communications Commission was created in 1934 as the successor to the Federal Radio Commission which itself had been created to supplant other regulatory agencies. The FCC's stated goal is to essentially govern the use of the entire radio spectrum originating or terminating within the United States. As a result, over the past 70 years its powers have continually grown to encompass numerous facets including what kind of technologies are allowed to exist (e.g. cable television), censorship of material transmitted over the air waves (e.g. wardrobe malfunctions) and it dictates who is allowed to partake in using these waves (i.e. licenses).
Invariably their machinations matriculated into the Internet, into wireless technology and into commerce as a whole. To this end, in 1986 FCC allowed the nascent cordless phone industry and hobbyists to develop phones and devices that could operate at the 47-49 MHz range. Knowing that an increase in the frequency would allow cordless phones to operate with less interference (and use less power), in 1990 the FCC permitted the frequency range of 900 MHz for the phones.
1994 the market brought forth the evolution of the digital phone era which was then quickly followed up in 1995 with digital spread spectrum (DSS). These innovations were designed to increase security by eliminating potential eavesdropping (e.g. listening to your neighbors conversations) and to increase the effective range of the phone (e.g. spreading the transmission in 360-degrees so there were no dead spots). And finally, in 1998 the FCC opened up the frequency range of 2.4 GHz (and added 5.8 GHz in 2003).
While the FCC was off fighting windmills, engineers from the Internet Engineering Task Force were developing a new way to send data across networks. In 1994 a new internet protocol was introduced and has since been deployed and expanded upon at an ever increasing rate (primarily in Asia): IPv6. Ignoring all other technical modifications and improvements this standard builds from the previous version (IPv4), one issue stands head and shoulders above all others is this: 3.4 × 1038 IP addresses. Whereas IPv4 allowed for just over 4 billion (notwithstanding "hacks" like the NAT), this new version allows for a dedicated IP address to be assigned to nearly every grain of sand on this planet (and then some).
While this may sound like another cocktail party statistic, the full implications of this can only truly be understood when coupled with other technologies, namely wireless.
In 1997 yet another network technology was introduced to the world, the original 802.11 wireless standard: Ethernet without wires. This laid the foundation to many of the alphabet soup innovations all ending in different letters: 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, etc.
All of these standards allow devices to communicate at relatively high-bandwidth rates (10 Mbps+) in areas the size of a house or small office (realistic ranges of 150 feet from the base-station). What this in turn does is in many situations; remove a costly physical layer from deployment and maintenance: wires. With wires out of the way, computing devices can now be placed in numerous hard-to-reach applications, like pipe shafts in oil wells.
Tell me something I don't know already, right?
Another technology which has been developed over the years is mobile communication. From the walkie talkies you may have used as a kid, to the cell phone in your pocket today, one major breakthrough which has become a force to be reckoned with is voice-over-IP (VoIP). In a nutshell, this means digitizing your telephone calls which travel through a computer network and then become a voice on the other end. So instead of using the cost-prohibitive and proprietary solutions provided by brick-and-mortar telecoms, users can now use their internet connection to audibly talk to anyone with an internet connection. In addition, only 256 kbps of bandwidth are typically required for most conversations; this is provided by virtually all broadband solutions, such as DSL or cable modems.
Several relatively inexpensive VoIP solutions are available on the market place, such as Vonage, Skype or the Gizmo Project. Vonage uses an open standards-based protocol (SIP) and charges a monthly fee for unlimited calls; Skype provides their proprietary software for free unlimited use and charges for various add-in services (e.g. voicemail); and the Gizmo Project is a mixture of both worlds, providing their SIP-based software for free and only charging for add-in services (e.g. calling PSTN land-lines).
It should also be noted that the creators of Skype (and others) are working together with mobile handset manufactures (e.g. Motorola) to integrate these VoIP technologies into their equipment for consumer consumption.
In reflection you now have three different technologies which complement one another. When meshed together and crammed into a cell phone or base-station (e.g. Apple's Airport), eyes begin to widen.
Within the next few years consumers will simply purchase a cell phone which uses free, universally standards compliant protocols to communicate to anyone else with something as simple as a desktop computer or similar VoIP-enabled phone.
The best part (aside from the low service bills and never going over your allocated minutes) is that you have become independent to the State-planned and controlled grid. This is primarily due to the encryption algorithm (AES) included in Skype (and others) which are so advanced that it would take years for the numerous supercomputers at State agencies (e.g. FBI) to crack just one conversation you have throughout the day let alone the thousands you have each year. However something is still missing, long-range distance. Remember that 802.11 technologies are limited to approximately 150 feet therefore it would be quite cost prohibitive to erect a wireless tower every few hundred feet to accommodate this service.
The last piece of technology needed to effectively complement these is WiMax or 802.16. This standard (primarily developed by Intel) allows for a transmitter to work at a range of about 30 miles with a bandwidth of around 75 Mbps. As of this writing Intel has began sampling such chips and is working with various handset manufactures like Nokia to roll these out into the market within the next year.
Not so fast.
One of the issues plaguing wireless technology such as WiMax is that of power-consumption. In general, the battery power of a laptop or cell phone is currently unable to handle the high usage requirements of this standard. However, last month a surprising, perhaps revolutionary technological announcement involving the wireless world was made: xMax.
Despite its Hollywood name, its capabilities are similar to WiMax yet with none of the drawbacks. Not only does it transmit a theoretical 30 Mbps over a distance of 15 miles, but it also uses a sparing 1 watt of power (e.g. 30 watts for WiMax). And because of its unique energy-saving modulation technique its power-footprint is essentially undetectable and therefore the FCC is unable to regulate it (unless of course, they rewrite their own rules).
While it may be 5-6 years before all of these technologies seamlessly converge into your cell phone, this story is not without its very own twist of irony.
It was through the very efforts of the FCC and established telecom firms to monopolize the radio waves: keeping it out of the hands of the market, much like the Baptist and the bootleggers of yore.
The FCC (through the support of the bootleggers) created several unlicensed portions of the spectrum for the intended use by hobbyists – the rest was auctioned off to the highest bidder. However their short-sightedness will ultimately cause their own downfall. Despite the fact that these frequencies are seemingly crowded, through the continued innovation and determination of market forces frequency modulation and bleeding have become an exact science. So while giving a thin sliver of the radio spectrum to the hoi polloi may have been seen as a charitable notion, it will ultimately drive the FCC out of business.