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the influence of regulation


Wow! Such an original statement! (the title of this entry I mean)

I won't even go into how I got to thinking on what I'm about to write. I've been up to my neck in B-Tree algorithms in the past two days and these ideas have sort of been seeping in the background.

It's been told many times how ARPA (now DARPA), and by extension the US Government, was really the driving force behind the Internet. The US Government in fact had another, less known influence on the Internet as we know it today: between 1993/94 it "opened it" for businesses (Al Gore was the main proponent of doing this, hence his oft-spoofed claim that "He invented the Internet"). The Internet had been around for a while by then, but it wasn't until the regulation permitted it that its full potential was exposed, and could then be exploited. Had the US Government kept control at that time, we'd probably be using MSN or AOL and thinking that it was the coolest thing in the world.

These days the main force of innovation is coming in terms of mobility, both at the protocol level (e.g., Internet-based P2P networks) and physical (e.g., various wireless technologies). Now, innovation happens more often than not at the edge of the network. Think of the things that you consider "innovative" from the past ten years. Chances are, pervasive email access, web Browsers and instant messaging are in that list somewhere. These things rarely happen on the server; although they might require a server component to work, their power comes from exposing information to clients (which sit at the edges of the network).

Yes, there is a point to this rambling discourse.

Since wireless has a tendency to be at the edge of the network, it's what's got more potential than anything else right now to inspire significant innovation. But because it's basically an open field, regulation still can stop new things from happening, or slow them down significantly. As an example, consider what happened with original wireless communications. As this brief history of cellular phones mentions:

In 1947, AT&T proposed that the FCC allocate a large number of radio-spectrum frequencies so that widespread mobile telephone service would become feasible and AT&T would have a incentive to research the new technology. We can partially blame the FCC for the gap between the initial concept of cellular service and its availability to the public. The FCC decided to limit the amount of frequencies available in 1947, the limits made only twenty-three phone conversations possible simultaneously in the same service area - not a market incentive for research.
It wasn't until 1968 that the FCC changed those rules. Poof. Twenty years of potential growth and experimentation for mobile technologies down the drain.

And it could happen again. Decentralized technologies in general (both at the logical and physical level) and wireless technologies in particular have huge potential but also pose huge risks for incumbents as the fight of the RIAA with P2P networks shows. For example, the handset companies are stumbling over each other to provide GPRS, 3G, you name it, along with high-end multimedia input/output capabilities. But once you've got high-speed internet access and SDKs for those devices, what's to stop someone from providing Internet Telephony on your mobile? Technologically, nothing of course. Whether the phone companies would let it happen is another matter entirely.

Another area that is up for contention is software radio. Here is an entry I wrote last december linking to an article on GNU Radio, the most prominent of the software radio projects out there. Software Radio essentially uses general purpose processors (or, alternatively, programmable DSPs) and a DAC connected to a wireless receiver/transmitter to allow a device to support any frequency, and by extension, any system that uses it. The GNU Radio project already supports receiving TV, FM Radio and HDTV on your personal computer, provided you have the proper hardware. And a lot more are coming. The FCC has been looking at how to regulate this area for about two years now (this speech by the Chief of the FCC's OET shows that they immediately "got it") and in 2001 it started to adopt rules that seemed to be "Software Radio friendly". But a lot of that was pre-change in the US Administration, as well as pre-9/11 with its subsequent tightening of security and increase of influence of military/intelligence agencies. So last year the tide started to change, not just because the leadership at the FCC had changed, but also because the companies woke up to what SR really meant for them, but also because of "security concerns", namely, that since software radios are so flexible, you can use them both for interception and attack of wireless communications. As it usually happens these days, everything is more connected than you think, and the "problems" (I'd call them opportunities, but what can you do...) created by software radio extend to other areas, as this article from Richard Stallman explains:

The media companies are not satisfied yet. In 2001, Disney-funded Senator Hollings proposed a bill called the "Security Systems Standards and Certification Act" (SSSCA)[1], which would require all computers (and other digital recording and playback devices) to have government-mandated copy restriction systems. That is their ultimate goal, but the first item on their agenda is to prohibit any equipment that can tune digital HDTV unless it is designed to be impossible for the public to "tamper with" (i.e., modify for their own purposes). Since free software is software that users can modify, we face here for the first time a proposed law that explicitly prohibits free software for a certain job. Prohibition of other jobs will surely follow. If the FCC adopts this rule, existing free software such as GNU Radio would be censored.
In conclusion: as everyone knows, regulation can help or hinder technology, but those of us that are involved in creating the technology usually ignore that. We shouldn't. And we should keep moving as fast as we can, after all, once the cat's out of the bag...

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on March 9 2003 at 5:52 PM

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