Study highlights widespread use of open wireless over licensed spectrum

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Unlicensed wireless technologies are underrated by policymakers, and future spectrum policy debates should emphasize them, argues an article (.pdf) in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology.

The article by Yochai Benkler, a Harvard Law professor, looks at eight wireless markets and finds that they are adopting unlicensed wireless strategies in mission-critical applications, in many cases more so than they are building on licensed strategies. He also says "open wireless strategies have a much higher value across diverse applications than has been generally captured by existing studies."

According to the article, 80 percent of wireless healthcare, 70 percent of smart grid communications, and 40-90 percent of mobile broadband data to smartphones and tablets use unlicensed strategies. The article says that unlicensed technologies are dominant in inventory management and access control, and that when it comes to mobile payments, early implementations "suggest there is no particular benefit to licensed strategies in this space."

The author notes that fleet management is one area where licensed technologies predominate. However, in the case of UPS, owner of the second largest U.S. commercial fleet, the company has implemented its fleet management system purely with unlicensed wireless, "suggesting that even here unlicensed may develop attractive alternatives," states the article.

In order to take advantage of this "tremendous economic value," Benkler argues that as the Federal Communications Commission implements its incentive auctions to repurpose spectrum, it should "use every flexibility open to it to expand the availability of as many, as contiguous, and as little-burdened as technically feasible bands for open wireless operations."

For its part, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration should focus its spectrum studies on how to turn spectrum over to open wireless devices, "rather than how much, and how soon, can be cleared for exclusive use," Benkler says.

Benkler also says the focus on spectrum auctions as sources of revenue hampers innovation.

For more:
- download the article, "Open Wireless vs. Licensed Spectrum: Evidence from Market Adoption" (.pdf)

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