The People Want the Airwaves Back

This short essay was written in the run up to the fourth Next 5 Minutes festival of Tactical Media, which took place in Amsterdam September 11 - 14, 2003.

The wireless landscape can be compared to a desert. Here and there the government has sold off pieces of it and on some of them, indeed, oases bloom. One of these spaces that allow controlled entry to citizens, is mobile telephony, where you pay a hefty price to enter and to stay. Other areas are shopping malls ? radio and TV seem to be like the window displays of the corporate sector, designed to convince you to buy more. The rest of the airwaves look as barren as a desert, occasionally visited by the bureaucrat and the manager on outmoded equipment.

?The airwaves belong to the people, and now the people want them back,? is what Stephen Dunifer, one of the world?s foremost radio activists, told me. It might seem that, faced with such powerful adversaries, the people stood little chance. But look again.

The metaphor of the desert is useful in another sense as well, for the good news is that we see some evidence of the noses of the people pushing into the wireless tents of the governments and the corporate sector. Two instances of this are the developments in WiFi and in short-range FM radio broadcasting.

WIFI [Layout remark: is WiFi]

The emerging telecom paradigm is one of wholesale and retail. The wholesale consists of mainly large companies or governments that deploy optic fibre cables, with satellites catering to broadcasting, remote areas and niche markets. At the moment, there is a glut in long-distance capacity on many routes, so the profit margins are rather thin. At the retail level, a variety of technologies find room, of which WiFi is the most interesting, from the point of view of the citizen.

This ?Ethernet in the ether? technology was originally designed for broadband networking of computers within a range of tens of meters. However, it now works well over kilometers as well.
As in the case of the Internet, a large distance can be covered through several small hops. As such, WiFi presents the most cost-effective method of bringing connectivity to villages in developing countries. Since it can already handle communication speeds in tens of megabits per second, it allows video-conferencing, which would be vital to bringing the benefits of telemedicine and distance learning to the poor.

So, what needs to be done is to ask that the frequencies WiFi uses be delicensed around the world for outdoor use. This is a good time to push for this, because given the hype over WiFi, our chances of being able to open up this set of bands are good, and so it is worthwhile to invest in this effort.

At the same time, a lot can be done with a little bit of spectrum. We only need to use wireless to get to the nearest optic fibre (or V-Sat), and the lower the power we use- with ever smarter devices - the more throughput we get in a given frequency band. As the band gets crowded, we can ask for more optic fibre to reach ever smaller wireless cells, and also for more bandwidth, but by now we have a constituency clamouring for more.

Indeed, given the availability of technologies that can share spectrum, we can certainly work towards a situation where we do not need government to police these commons. But how do we get there from here? What about all the legacy hardware that people have paid for, which will need replacement? Increasingly, though, the mobile phone is making other wireless sets redundant. WiFi will confirm this trend. As time passes, equipment in many bands will cease to function or fall into disuse, and the spectrum become available for sharing.

What we are unconsciously adopting in using WiFi is the classic camel in the tent strategy, which is the most effective in the kind of desert the wireless spectrum is.


For the poor and illiterate, FM radio is cheap enough to be accessible, both transmitters and receivers. Plus, for almost everyone, audio is our most natural way to produce content, from the baby?s cry when it is born to our last breath.

FM radio occupies indeed a very important slot in the wireless spectrum, one which is the worst regulated. Being almost the first electronic technology, the two words ?wireless? and ?radio? have been used synonymously. Regulations governing radio date back to a far more authoritarian era ? only now is Indian regulation attempting to distance itself from the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885.

However, bands of international activists continue to fight for the opening up of the airwaves. They fought for the opening up of low-power FM broadcasting before the FCC of the United States, which was inclined to open up this area. However, corporate interests in FM radio were able to prevail with the argument that these low-power transmitters would interfere with their reception.

The FCC asked for a study to be conducted, the results of which can be found at They found, when testing 10W transmitters, that there was no interference to commercial radio stations noticeable. Using these results, activists such as Pete Tridish are attempting to move the FCC towards further opening up of this sector.

While effort continues to work within the system, action is not lacking on the streets either. Steve Dunifer and others are calling for a day of electronic solidarity and direct action on October 17, 2003. They are helping people with training camps and information so that they can start their own community radio stations on this day.

The war over wireless spectrum is being fought on many fronts. It is essential for those promoting the opening up of WiFi to support the fight for community FM, and vice versa. For FM radio stations, WiFi can be a way for neighboring stations to share content with each other and widen their reach.

The significance of these battles is immense. For the FM radio movement access to communities and the disenfranchised is the issue. The spread of WiFi holds out the possibility of the spread of the commons into the wireless spectrum, and indeed into telecommunications itself.