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Why we should care about the spectrum debate

The debate of who should manage the wireless spectrum and whether it should be open is key to the future of mobile and personal computing, experts say.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--If you are like me your eyes probably glaze over a bit when people start talking about wireless spectrum.

Well, maybe consumers should start paying more attention because the debate over how spectrum is managed will determine how we'll be able to use all types of devices in the future, Tim Wu, Columbia Law School professor, said at a Legal Futures Conference at Stanford University on Saturday.

Specifically, there is a "battle for platform supremacy between two different types of devices"--mobile versus computer, he said. The mobile platform has a centralized, monopoly legacy whereas the computer platform was born in a distributed, open environment.

Internet companies like Google are battling with traditional telecom companies over requiring open access to spectrum, which would allow people to use whatever device they want on that spectrum.

"As (mobile) gains in popularity...the question becomes what the dominant platform will be," Wu said. "There will be one platform to rule them all...Control of spectrum is the bottleneck" that either maintains the telecom monopoly model or brings the openness of the Internet to the wireless world.

Someone in the audience asked panel member Kent Walker, Google general counsel, if Google had won its bid for the 700MHz spectrum and, if so, whether the spectrum will be opened. Walker said Google can't talk about the auction while it is ongoing.

"The direction is toward mobile, and local, and the power line," Walker said. "We do well with the Internet...If it will make the Internet more accessible that's an opportunity for the company and, ultimately, for consumers."

There is also an increasing call for spectrum to be owned by all the citizens, rather than licensed by the government to corporations to operate.

"I'm here to say 'free the spectrum,'" said Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and ethics at the Wharton School of Business and former counsel for new technology policy at the Federal Communications Commission.

Under the current system, companies have been allowed to perpetuate the falsehood that spectrum is scarce for economic gain, he said. "The tragedy is we're not using anywhere near the capacity of the wireless spectrum to communicate."