A Spectrum Carol

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 22 December 2004

Yes, it’s holiday time, so here’s a true legend from the early days of wireless data.

‘Twas the night before Airport, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even the mouse, Antennae were hung next to laptops with care, In the hopes that St. Spectrum soon would be there;

Engineers were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of protocols danced in their heads. But Steve Jobs, rehired, and writing new apps Retired things wireless, for a decade-long nap.

It’s a story that came to a quiet close just few weeks ago, as a fairly innocuous and esoteric piece of legislation was documented in the Federal Register reallocating a few unused bands in the wireless spectrum. No big deal to most of us, even those of us who think of ourselves as heavily invested in wireless communication. But just like each line in your Visa card bill can tell the tale of a business dinner that changed your career or even a night of debauchery when you met or lost your spouse, there’s a story and a legacy behind every one of these subtle shifts of bandwidth.

This one was called to my attention by spectrum guru Bennett Z. Kobb, author of Wireless Spectrum Finder: Telecommunications, Government and Scientific Radio Frequency Allocations in the US, 30 MHz - 300 GHz.

While knowing the tale of a failed patch of bandwidth may not mean much to our current businesses, it reveals a lot about how approaches to wireless innovation have changed, and, more significantly, how the spectrum record is almost an archeological document, exposing the everchanging landscape of agendas and priorities of our evolving transmission society.

Our story begins in the early ’90s when Apple Computer was in its awkward adolescent phase. They had a number of superb ideas and a handful of great products, but an arrogant, undisciplined research and development methodology that led to an even greater number of missed opportunities than products to market. Like many other teenagers, the pubescent company was struggling with a number of issues. The most popular kid on the block had lost control of the personal computer market to the Wintel gang. Its original father, Steve Jobs, had been forced out of the house by an impatient board. Now, it was suffering from an identity crisis as a result of its technology licensing deals and oddly prescient but unmarketably early hybrid media devices like the Macintosh TV, fittingly code-named Peter Pan, for the company that couldn’t, and wouldn’t, grow up.

It was during this era — the very last of the days when anything still seemed possible — that Apple initiated a petition to the FCC for an as-yet unlicensed spectrum they hoped they could utilize use for wireless data. Having already learned the hard lesson of going it alone, they hired a young Benn Kobb to create a trade association of manufacturers and named it the Wireless Information Networks Forum, or WINForum. According to Kobb, “the theory was that the combined clout of IBM, HP, Sun, AT&T and many other companies in one group would reassure the [Federal Communications] Commission that the proposal had wide support, and that the thorny technical issues would be worked aggressively by this group so the FCC wouldn’t have to make the effort.”

Ahh, classic early dot-com bubble enthusiasm: if enough companies could be convinced to wave off the technological hurdles ahead, everyone else would nod their heads, too. Maybe, just maybe, the combined will of believers would make wireless information networks a reality. It would be no small task.

In the first place, it wasn’t easy getting different companies with different goals to agree about much of anything. There were phone companies, computer companies and others, each with its own reasons to employ spectrum. As Kobb explains, “it was extremely partisan.” But the group did succeed at developing a novel approach to coexistence of unlicensed devices known as the Spectrum Etiquette, “a term we coined,” says Kobb. Opinions vary as to its effectiveness, but it is now enshrined in FCC rules and is thus mandatory for certain classes of products.

The FCC was impressed enough with WINForum’s progress to grant Apple access to some spectrum at 1910-1920MHz, called unlicensed Data-PCS (Personal Communications Services) allocated for wireless LANs and other computer networking applications, and at 5GHz, which they called the National Information Infrastructure, or NII, which would be used by schools.

It was that first 10 precious MHz, code-named Zephyr, which Apple was to use to create wireless data applications for its Newton palmtop, and eventually spin off as an entirely separate enterprise. Imagine that.

Unfortunately, the initial 10MHz of spectrum was filled with existing users — mostly the fixed networks of utilities companies — who had to be painstakingly relocated. Apple even employed its Cray supercomputer to work out the math of retuning those hundreds of transmitters, and started up a second organization just to fund and manage the relocation effort.

When it wasn’t sure if this massive migration would succeed, Apple managed to get another band, 2390-2400MHz, inhabited by a friendlier population of amateur radio enthusiasts, who were more welcoming of these strange new spectrum applications.

By the time all that was done, Steve Jobs was back at the helm and refocusing Apple on developing a new operating system, OS X. Zephyr, Newton and even the profitable but distracting printing division were cancelled.

The NII band eventually went to 802.11, and that frequency just above 2400MHz went to 802.11 b and g. After the unforeseen emergence of Wi-Fi, Apple rehired some of its ex-Zephyr engineers and swiftly launched the Airport wireless networking line. Apple finally released the unused 1910-1920MHz spectrum back to the FCC, made official just last month, and the effort became a footnote in the Federal Register. The rest as they say, is history. The painstakingly lobbied-for 2390-2400MHz remains available for networking, yet unused to this day — waiting, like a holiday gift, for the next clever PCS developer. (See update in COMMENTS, below.)

Until that day, unraveling the spectrum record reveals a history in which the power players of the communications and computing industries understood that fixed resources must be shared, and that collaboration and cooperation often yield the happiest results.

And that’s a good holiday lesson for us all.