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HOPE X: Citizens Band Microwave Spectrum And Free Internet For All


The bulk of HOPE X was the talks, but arguably the far more interesting aspect of thousands of hackers and tinkerers under one roof is talking to everyone about what they're doing. One guy hanging out at HOPE gave a quick lightning talk to a few people about something very interesting: something the FCC is pushing through that's open to just about everything: it's the FCC's new CB radio service (you'll want to click the presentation link at the very top of the page), giving anyone, not just people with a radio license, access to a huge swath of microwave spectrum.

The short version of the talk was the fact the FCC is extremely interested in opening up 100 to 200 MHz of spectrum at 3.5 GHz. The idea is to create something like cellular service that can either be implemented by companies, or normal, everyday people. The initial goal of this is to provide -possibly- free Internet to anyone with the right USB dongle. Since it's just radio, and open to everyone, just about anything can be implemented.

This is something the FCC, Google, Microsoft, and a whole bunch of startups are extremely interested in, and the fact that about half of the spectrum will be open to anyone creates some interesting opportunities. A community-based freenet of wireless Internet links becomes an easy solution, and since the hardware to access 3.5 GHz is similar to other hardware that's already available means building your own wireless ISP could be relatively easy in 12 to 18 months.

A transcript of the lightning talk is available below.


These days when you mention the FCC to the hacker community or the DIY community, net neutrality is what they think about. This has nothing to do with net neutrality. What we're talking about is a radically new way of doing internet service providers. What makes it radically new and different is a few things. The first is a proposal the FCC is very seriously and intensively developing right now, and the other is that it is a new frequency band with strange new business relationships in the frequency band.

This is legally and technically citizens band radio. Some of you might be users who are over 50 and remember CB radio from the 70s and truckers talking and it's not at 27 MHz; this new form of wireless communication is at 3500 MHz or 3.5 GHz, so this is in the microwave portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

It's called the citizens broadband radio service, or CBRS, and those of us who are hearing this or reading this who are radio amateurs will recognize the number 97 as FCC Part 97 – this is in Part 96 of the FCC regulations.

The FCC calls this the Innovation Band, and what they mean by that phrase is that they have really thrown the doors open to new applications, new service providers, and individuals to do creative things with this radio spectrum. The chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, has said this proposal could unlock vast opportunities for wireless in areas like energy, security, and financial services. I pointed out in the beginning that this was unusual. This arrangement is very strange, and he acknowledge that. He said we should not flinch from this opportunity simply because it is not standard operating procedure.

The citizens broadband radio service is a nationwide network of small microwave cells. This is similar to WiFi access points, but in a completely new frequency band using technology that's much more advanced than what is available in WiFi today. This service will be operated by a mix of licensed wireless carriers, or the kinds of companies we all pay a fee to each month to our cellphone or Internet service, and general public CB operators without individual licenses. They will be together in the same radio spectrum. Right now this band is 3550 to 3650 MHz. That means a 100 MHz wide band, however part of the proposal would be to increase this band and make it go as much as 50 to 100 MHz higher. So there's a possibly of 150 MHz, 200 MHz, or even higher amounts of spectrum.

This is a very generous allocation of spectrum, keeping in mind nobody is making radio spectrum any more. God made all of it during the Big Bang. It's very difficult to get any and normally companies bid millions of dollars at auctions for licenses to use radio spectrum. This band will essentially be completely new to the public. It is currently used – the main user is Navy radars. The Navy operates radars along the coast, but it is the opinion of the people who are doing the engineering on this that this will not be a big difficulty in this, simply because of the physical distances involved and the characteristics of the Navy radars.

The frequencies that these wireless ISPs and wireless operators will use will be assigned in real-time by a third-party provider. This is called the Spectrum Access System Administrator. The FCC sees several companies being authorized to allocate the service. They're going to monitor the use of frequencies all across the country, and then when you want to use it, your device or your network will receive an instruction either directly or indirectly from this administrator to tell you what frequency to use. And Google is all over this. Google wants to provide that service. They already provide a similar service called the TV whitespaces – those are TV channels that are not used in rural areas, so they can be used for WiFi backhaul.

There are mainly two classes of license in this service. The PAL which stands for Priority Access License are commercial wireless carriers who are bidding for wireless frequencies in auctions in those places where there are more people who want licenses than licenses available. Potentially tens of thousands of licenses will be auctioned. The other license is GAA or General Authorized Access, which is the general public who operate without licenses who will share the spectrum with licensed carriers. Microsoft has said the GAA spectrum is their main interest. Essentially, Microsoft is pushing for the unlicensed public network mode of use.

One of the things that has come up is how much information will be collected. Microsoft and a few other companies are saying only a very minimal amount of information should be collected about who is using this and what they're using it for and where they are. They should limit the amount of information about how much information administrators should collect.

What is this going to be used for? Well, the FCC has virtually no opinion on that subject. Basically, they say a citizens broadband wireless network user, that is anyone with a laptop with a wireless dongle or any access point that uses this is an authorized user if that equipment has been authorized by the FCC. They may render any kind of communication service, commercially, sell internet access, not commercially, use it for your family or friends or community or school, there's no restriction on content.

So if people want to follow this, find out what's going on, there's two things to know. One is the name of it. That is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service, if you want to Google that. The other is the FCC proceeding number, the docket number, and it's 12-354. That's the number of the proceeding at the FCC. This thing is moving much faster than proceedings typically move through the FCC. They can take years and years, and after a few years nothing happens and the FCC cuts it down and says it's too old. This happens all the time. This is not that. This is moving quickly. In 2013, the FCC not only put out the proposed rules for the requirements the end-user devices must meet, but also held two public workshops that were filled with people doing public presentation – companies like AT&T, Verizon, Quallcom, Google, Sony, and more, and startups were piling in and lobbying the FCC to get a piece of this action. And very fortunately public oriented groups like the EFF, Public Knowledge, and the New America Foundation, Free Press, are pushing for the GAA, the free access, which we hope will be preserved when the FCC makes a final ruling on this, which I expect will be about one year from now.

When will I be able to buy a piece of hardware with this?

What the FCC is being told is that companies are very eager to jump into this market, and some of them make equipment that is very similar. Some of these are not American companies, but I anticipate that within perhaps three to six months after a final decision from the FCC, which I expect to be summer of 2015, and more likely by the end of 2015. This is actually a huge undertaking. We're talking about a nationwide network of totally interconnected hardware with a spectrum access administrator, they have to be certified, they have to be monitoring the spectrum. I have to be honest with you: this could take a few years, but in many, many years of my tracking FCC proceedings, I have never seen the excitement level I'm seeing.

Most of [Bennett Kobb]'s career has been with the FCC. Not as an employee, but as a trade journalist covering the agency for trade publications. He's also written a few books which are handbooks of spectrum allocations. They're used very widely in the FCC and the Air Force, and the NSA. The address the books were shipped to at the NSA was "Door Number 1, 2, or 3″.

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