Tuesday, September 29, 2009

No more S-word

I’ve undertaken a language challenge: can one talk about radio policy without using the word “spectrum” (except in quotes)?

My guess is that I don’t need to use the S-word at all; that it can be replaced with simple terms rather than clumsy paraphrases; and that the clarity of a text, and the understanding of the reader, will be greatly improved if one avoids it.

I first raised this possibility in the DySPAN 2008 paper De-Situating Spectrum: Rethinking Radio Policy Using Non-Spatial Metaphors where I recommended a “restatement of wireless policy in terms of system operation rather than spectrum.”

The word “spectrum” has many meanings, depending on context. In policy documents it’s usually short-hand for the topic dealt with by radio regulators, aka their “the object of governance”. There are a range of intended meanings, including a radio license; a range of frequencies; or all the parameters (frequency, geography, transmit power mask, allowed use, single or paired bands, etc.) associated with a radio license.

Engineers use “spectrum” to refer to a range of frequencies, or sometimes to electromagnetic phenomena. Less frequently – curiously, since this is closest to the dictionary definition – they use it to refer to the distribution of electromagnetic energy that results from radio operation.

In short, the following substitution covers most cases:
FOR spectrum SAY radio license OR radio operation OR frequencies
The S-word is also used in various combinations; here are some translations:
FOR acquire spectrum SAY acquire permissions

FOR sharing spectrum SAY coordinating operation

FOR use of spectrum SAY operation of radios

FOR spectrum rights SAY rights to operate

FOR spectrum allocation (noun) SAY license type

FOR spectrum allocation (verb) SAY deciding use

FOR spectrum assignment (verb) SAY authorizing a radio operator

FOR Dynamic Spectrum Access ("DSA") SAY dynamic radio operation

FOR stockpiling spectrum SAY stockpiling licenses

FOR demand for spectrum SAY demand for licenses

FOR manage spectrum SAY manage radio operation

FOR improve the efficiency of spectrum use SAY increase concurrent radio operation

FOR a chunk of spectrum SAY operations concentrated in a band
The value of more precise terminology becomes obvious when one looks through this list. One can distinguish between two distinct referents of “spectrum”: the parameters of operation of radios, and the rights to operate. It’s a distinction between assets and operations. One can easily put radio licenses (“spectrum”) on a balance sheet, but not the institutional and technological ways of coordinating radio operation (“spectrum”).

But why bother? An obvious retort is that this is just nitpicking: “Everybody knows what they mean by the word in a given context.” I argue that it’s important because the connotations of words matter, and change how we see the world.

Constant, thoughtless use of the S-word without teasing apart its meanings creates a thing: “the spectrum”. We come to accept as real the illusion that we’re dealing with a concrete thing (like bushels of corn) rather than the behavior of devices and their owners. If one takes away the radios, “spectrum” as an object of governance ceases to exist, although “spectrum” in the sense of “electromagnetic phenomena” persists. This illusion leads to the fallacy that “spectrum” can be counted like bushels of corn, whereas it is in fact a regulated socio-technical arrangement. It leads to the fallacy that “spectrum” can be counted, and that it is permanently divisible and inalienable.

I’m not denying that interference can occur between radio systems, nor that property rights can facilitate the coordination of radio operation. Rather, I’m suggesting that “spectrum” leads too easily to important conclusions that need to be considered more deeply, such as that wireless licenses are necessarily exclusive rights to operate in fixed frequency ranges. A focus on the behavior of radio systems, which changes constantly as technology and institutions evolve, rather than some spectrum-as-thing can produce a more robust and efficient way to coordinate radio operation.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A cybersecurity taxonomy

I recently chaired a panel on “Cybersecurity and Digital Identity” at a USC roundtable preparing for the APEC Ministerial in 2011.

The links between cybersecurity, digital identity and trade were not immediately obvious to me, and since security isn’t an area where I can even pretend to have expertise, it forced me to think through the topic from the ground up.

I ended up reframing the topic as “the protection of assets in the digital age.” Not “digital assets”, although some assets are undoubtedly digital. Some concrete assets have digital dimensions: for example, a compromised SCADA system can deprive a city of its water supply. This is a new risk because the use of standardized/open solutions and the growing internet connections between SCADA systems and office networks has made them more vulnerable to attack. And while a person’s reputation isn’t digital as such, information technology has changed how reputations are constructed, disseminated, and need to be protected.

The next step is to categorize the assets that need to be protected, and for that one can consider various attributes. One useful categorization is the motive for threatening assets; I submit that Sex, Money, and Power are the three important motivations (in all things!).

Sex is about status – high status improves reproductive success; into this category would fall hackers who build exploits to show their prowess, and people who want to build a digital persona.

Money refers to economic motivations, whether protecting intellectual property rights in content through encryption, or building botnets for fraud or blackmail.

Power is perhaps least talked about until recently: it’s the pursuit of national interest through IT, e.g. “cyberwar”. The assets in question include critical national infrastructure, and sensitive intelligence.
As an alternative nomenclature to sex, money, and power, one might think of Fame, Fortune, and Foreign Affairs.

The motivations of sex, money, and power can be mapped against another categorization, that of the asset context. In increasing order of scale, the contexts are the personal, the corporate, and the national (aka social, commercial, and political). (However, note that global corporations actually operate at both a national and transnational scale.)

With these two categorizations, one can then plot topics on a handy grid (apologies about formatting; I haven't grokked how to import tables into blogger):







Money, goods

Personal safety

Reputation, brand

Intellectual property

Tangible assets

Employee & customer safety

Business continuity

Critical infrastructure


State assets, incl. military

Political power structures

National wealth

Sex (aka fame)




Brand hijacking, web defacement


Threats (by motive for attack)

Money (aka fortune)


Identity theft

Botnet recruiting

Theft of goods

Appropriation of know-how

Diverted compute capacity


Advantage national champions

Create non-tariff barriers

Power (aka foreign affairs)

Suppression of speech, access

Appropriation of IPR

Reduce ability to compete

Intelligence gathering

Degrading infrastructure & assets

Demoralizing populations

A few notes:

Threats to assets come in various flavors, notably appropriation, destruction, and constraint of use

Trade occurs both within and between columns, that is, between individual people and between individual companies, as well as between people and companies. Likewise, at a different resolution scale, between nations.

It helps to distinguish between the What vs. the How. Security doesn’t appear explicitly in the table, and neither does digital identity; both are means to end (“how) of protecting assets (“what”). Other means (they do overlap) include encryption, digital rights management, and norms, rules and treaties.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Resource management, spectrum, and cyborg fish

One runs out of spectrum the way you run out of patience. While there is a supply of it, metaphorically speaking, in practice it’s a matter of the behavior of agents (radios) in a given context – just as patience is a matter of how one person, with certain proclivities, reacts to the actions of another. The outcome depends as much on the attributes of the agents as the details of the context, and both are constantly changing.

“Spectrum” is a useful fiction that is used to talk about the management of radio operation. As I argued in De-situating Spectrum: Non-spatial metaphors for wireless communication, this usage is grounded in the spectrum-as-space metaphor, and in particular the spectrum-as-land variant. However, there are other viable metaphors for radio operation, such as thinking about coordinating radio regulation as similar to trademark: an infringing trademark that confuses a customer is like one radio that causes interference in another. A radio license is like a trademark; it enables one to prevent harmful interference by others.

However, the spectrum-as-land metaphor is pervasive. It appears in debates about how best to “manage spectrum”. Opponents of unlicensed , for example, claim that it leads to a tragedy of the commons. However, there is no tragedy of the commons with Wi-Fi, because there is no commons; that is, there is no underlying, essential resource that bears any resemblance to land in Hardin’s classic analysis, or as far as I can see, to what either lawyers or economist mean by “a resource” (assuming you can pin them down long enough to extract a definition). One can measure land in acres, and sheep in heads. A moment’s thought will confirm that there is no agreed way to measure “spectrum”: it’s not MHz, not MHz/m^2, not MHz.m^2, not watt/MHz or watt.MHz or watt.MHz/m^2 or watt.MHz/bps.m^2 or … And this doesn’t even begin to address the role of receivers.

I suspect that the rise of the spectrum metaphor is related the entry of economics into radio regulation. In order for (neoclassical) economics to get purchase on a topic, it must have (or create) a thing to be traded; and since economics is the allocation of resources under scarcity, this thing must be a scarce resource. Just introducing radio licenses don’t seem to have been sufficient to operationalize radio operation in economic terms; there need to be something which is licensed, or to which access is licensed. “Spectrum” fits the bill; it’s reasonably stable, and given the spectrum-as-land metaphor, sufficiently thinglike.

An interesting analogy is the creation of individual transferable quotas (ITQs) detailed in Petter Holm’s “Which Way is Up on Callon?” in Do Economists Make Markets (2007), edited by Donald MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia Su. According to Holm, the ITQ model is an invention of neoclassical economics whose adoption was facilitated by the rise of fisheries resource management. As he tells it, it’s a complicated story “about the construction and stabilization of a heterogeneous network, tying the fish in with fishermen, echo integrators, log books, legislation, computers, bureaucracies, mathematical formulas, and surveillance procedures. It is within such a network that that the fish-as-fit-for-management springs to life, as a true cyborg: part nature, part text, part computer, part symbol, part human, part political machine.” [1] [2]

The analogy to “spectrum” is pretty clear – the development of spectrum analyzers, the measurement program exemplified by the “spectrum occupancy maps” produced by SSC, NAF and others, and the stock analyst’s $/MHz.POP metric for analyzing auction results serve to construct “spectrum” as a manageable object of governance. [3]

I haven’t nailed down when spectrum entered the regulatory lexicon. It’s not used at all in the 1912 Radio Act, which mentions only “wave lengths”. The 1934 Act only refers to frequencies. However, Coase’s “Federal Communications Commission” paper (1959) cites Mr. Justice Frankfurter’s 1934 opinion in National Broadcasting Co. v. United States (319 U.S. 190, cited in Coase 1959), where the spectrum-as-space seems well established: “the radio spectrum simply is not large enough to accommodate everybody.” Frankfurter also articulates the resource notion underpinning subsequent development of the spectrum concept: “The facilities of radio are limited and therefore precious; they cannot be left to wasteful use without detriment to the public interest.” Spectrum-as-a-spatial-resource is therefore a pre-WW II concept; it evidently didn’t flow from the Coasian economization of radio, but I believe they reinforced each other. [4]

One can rightly ask why, given that the spectrum-as-land notion was well established in the Thirties, and Coase advanced the property rights case in 1960, it took another 30 years for the “propertization of spectrum” to be realized. I suspect that RF spectrum analyzers and broadband radio technology converged to bring about the “auction moment” in the 90s. It took time for both the analytical (game theory, law & economics) and engineering (real-time RF spectrum analyzers [5], commodity spread spectrum technologies) concepts to mature. They’re now well entrenched – and my quest to undermine the primacy of spectrum as an object of governance may be quixotic.


[1] Holm’s analysis is grounded in Callon and Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, which has been used to make the argument that economists “perform” the economy, that is, that economic models not only describe economic reality, but in part constitute it.

[2] Amusingly, it took a couple of trenchant critics of Callon to show how internecine politics in academic economics shaped the FCC’s spectrum auctions (Mirowski, P. and Nik-Kah, E. (2007) “Markets Made Flesh: Callon, Performativity, and a Crisis in Science Studies, Augmented with Consideration of the FCC Auctions,” in D. MacKenzie, F. Muniesa and L. Siu (eds.) Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics.)

[3] William Boyd introduced me to the notion of “objects of governance”.

[4] There seems to be tension in the law & economics community about this. Coase is a “property is a bundle of rights” man, which is decried in (2001) “What Happened to Property in Law and Economics?” (Thomas W Merrill and Henry E Smith, Yale Law Journal, 2001, Vol. 111, p. 357). Merrill & Smith advocate in rem rights that are referred back to things, as opposed to in personam rights that are arbitrary contractual arrangements. Thomas Hazlett has picked up on Merrill & Smith, and very much would like to treat spectrum as a thing which can be licensed unproblematically – but Coase got his rebuttal in at the start: “... what is being allocated by the Federal Communications Commission ... is the right to use a piece of equipment to transmit signals in a particular way. Once the question is looked at in this way, it is unnecessary to think in terms of ownership of frequencies or the ether.”

[5] Real-time spectrum analyzers for acoustic studies were available by 1957. Sri Welaratna’s "30 years of FFT Analyzers", in Sound and Vibration (January 1997, 30th anniversary issue) gives a historical review of hardware spectrum-analyzer devices; again, these are focused on vibration studies.