Phil Graham on 14 Oct 2000 15:35:59 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> [Fwd: Bill Clinton freaks out over G3 wireless]

Clinton's freak out is predicatable. This is one of the biggest land grabs 
in history and he wants to push it through. The corporate interests at 
stake are huge. The debate over bandwidth (radio spectrum) has really only 
just begun. It is probably the single most important element of the "new 
economy". The current grab for "electrospace" (Smythe 1981) is to 
cybercapitalism what the enclosures movement was to capitalism - the 
edifice on which all future enterprise must be built.

In the twenties and thirties, there are some really strange arguments and 
conceptual grapples over the spatial nature of the electromagnetic spectrum 
because the concept was new. Here is something from William Wallace Childs 
written in 1924 to exemplify.
Writing on “Air as Raw Material” … Walter S. Rogers, American adviser to 
the Peace conference in Paris, said that one of the serious problems in 
dealing with the subject of international electrical communications was the 
question of who owns the right to use space for communication purposes […]

Of course air has nothing to do with the matter, whether as raw material or 
otherwise. Nothing is property unless it can be reduced to possession and 
exclusively occupied and held. The newspapers of Washington D.C., called 
attention, some few years ago, to the purchase of space overlying a lot of 
ground by the owner of a tall building adjoining, in order to secure the 
right to the perpetual use of whatever light and air might fill that space. 
Air drifts in and out with every zephyr, and light passes through at the 
rate of 186,000 miles per second.

The purchaser can only own so much of them as he can use. What he here 
bought was something more imponderable than light. In economics it is known 
as land, or natural resources; in everyday English it is space.  (Childs, 
1924, p. 520)

There are many other examples along the same lines from that era. Anyway, 
what they realise is what we forget: that elctrospace is space in a very 
real sense, the same as land: it needs to be owned monopolistically to be 
of any use.

The auction system developed by the FCC is very sophisticated, and bears 
all the hallmarks of the enclosures movement. It realises the formidable 
task of actually making electrospace legally as real as landed property (a 
similar process was needed despite the seemingly obvious nature of private 
property [meaning land, not simple possession] today):
The Wireless Telecommunications Bureau built the [auction] system from the 
ground up using a unique combination of innovative solutions to meet the 
complex requirements of the auctions program. State-of-the-art information 
technology was used including hardware, software, and telecommunications 
solutions in a client/server environment.

To do this, the Commission brought together the talents of economists, 
industry analysts, game theorists, programmers, and lawyers to formalize 
the requirements of the system. Auctions for different types of 
communications services have necessitated using very different auction 
rules. The auctions system, therefore, is designed to be flexible to 
administer different types of auctions and adapt to changes in the auction 
rules. … The technical challenges posed by the design requirements were 
significant, and great care was taken to create a flexible, 
parameter-driven system powerful enough to adapt to a changing environment. 
(FCC, 2000, p. 4)

One of the main motivating groups behind this modern enclosures movement is 
the UMTS forum

Check out the membership list. Really impressive for a consensus group.

What it amounts to is the establishment of a global, privately owned 
*broadcast* space ("interactivity" will have nothing to do with it if it is 
realised as planned), which is what, I think, Kahn and Cerf were alluding 
to in such a resigned and complicit manner when Cerf recently posted to 

Control of elctromangentic space is one of the most serious issues of our 
age and awareness of its significance seems minimal. Those involved treat 
it as a foregone conclusion. Currently, it is and should be public space, 
even though licenses are exclusively occupied.

Here are a few more words from me, Childs, and other of his contemporaries 
(all of this is from a forthcoming paper I just finished):

Legislative quibbles over the ownership of radio spectrum may seem mundane 
in terms of what is being proposed in the policy: namely, the 
commodification of practically everything that makes humans human (and 
inhuman). But it should be noted that this is an historically unique 
macro-proposal: the UMTS corporations (among others) are saying that it is 
necessary and important to privatise a large section of the global 
electromagnetic spectrum. Grabs for whole spectrum blocs have previously 
been the concern of nation-states; ‘radio communication is particularly 
susceptible to national control because, to a much greater extent than 
other communication media, the radio requires some control if it is to 
serve any human purpose whatsoever’ (Church, 1939). Electromagnetic space 
can  or rather could  only be used effectively if used and owned 
monopolistically by an organisation of some sort:
Such an organization, employing an appropriate apparatus to excite certain 
vibrations, would be enjoying a monopoly and could only function properly 
as a public utility under government regulation or ownership. To preëmpt 
the ether and hold wave lengths by prescription and prevent interference 
with the operation of those agencies, seems to require legislative and 
executive authority of the stateturning the power of monopoly to the common 
service. (Childs, 1924, p. 522)

Until quite recently,
nations of the world have never departed from the basic “world property” 
concept of the right to use specific radio frequency assignments, such 
rights have in practice been treated as one of the most important bases of 
politico-economic power on a first-come, first served policy. (Smythe, 
1981, p. 307)

Thus there arose a ‘more subtle basis for maintaining imperial power than 
voting rights’ on the allocation of electromagnetic spectrum rights:
the pragmatic “priority” allowed to the country which first “notified” the 
ITU [International Telecommunications Commission] of its intention to use a 
particular radio frequency assignment. … This principle was agreed to at 
the Berlin Conference in 1906. And in this regard the United States early 
laid the foundation for its dominance after 1945 in world 
telecommunications and the formal empire it has maintained. (p. 307)

In short, unlike copper wire, fibre optics, or satellite infrastructure, 
radio spectrum is the non-depletable, concrete resource upon which any 
global knowledge economy, if it is to exist at all, must be built (Rosston 
and Steinberg, 1997). The concreteness is of the space is questionable, 
almost incomprehensible. Because the electromagnetic spectrum exists 
everywhere all the time at all frequencies, the current bandwidth 
legislators construe electrospace as a kind of ‘space in the fourth 
dimension’ which should thus be left ‘open to private exploitation, vesting 
title to the waves according to priority of discovery and occupation’, but 
that is not the case:
Of course, the wave length is not a fourth dimension, for there is also 
breadth and depth of wave (amplitude and frequency) and doubtless the 
correct analogy is the whole electro-magnetic field; but private property 
in any natural field or wave is only a human convention and one that it 
would be dangerous to extend to this new-discovered continent. The theory 
that otherwise it cannot be developed has already been demonstrated to be 
untrue. Otherwise only can it be kept free from monopoly. (Childs, 1924, 
pp. 522-523, emphasis added)

A new-discovered continent indeed! But it is a continent that has now 
become passé, relegated to the realm of myth, since it is generally sold as 
time rather than space. Radio spectrum is now not widely conceived of as 
concrete property, at least not in the main. But people interested in 
buying and selling the spectrum are clearly of a different opinion. The 
policy language advocating spectrum privatisation is shot through with all 
the clarion calls of colonialism, and with all the “pioneering” images that 
adorn the imperialist’s historical mindset. Thus the spatial aspects of 
language are clear and present:
I truly believe that encouraging more bandwidth, particularly, to 
residential consumers in the country, is the next great frontier in 
communications policy.

As I was saying, bandwidth is the great ::: the next great frontier in 
communications policy. And I want the hallmark of this Commission's work to 
be that we encourage the competitive provision of high speed networks and 
services using any appropriate technology for all Americans wherever they 
live, at home, at work, in schools, libraries, hospitals, whether they live 
in cities or in rural areas, on reservations. Wherever there's demand, 
there should be bandwidth. (Kennard, 1999, in FCC, 1999)

This is being said in 1999, not 1924! And here again in the Federal 
Communications Commission’s argument to “deregulate” bandwidth we see the 
same expansive aspects of social life implicated as in the policy concerned 
with proposing the commodification of human activity. But this time the 
talk is referring to foundational space, real space  newly privatiseable 
property. Typically, such talk is accompanied by the obfuscating liberatory 
claptrap that has accompanied “revolutions” throughout history (cf. 
Fairclough and Graham, forthcoming; Marx, 1972, p. 457):
I just would like to say that … I think this is an extraordinary crossroad 
in our intellectual thinking with regard to communication services, and we 
should keep that in mind. In a sense, the beginning of crossing the 
rubicon, sort of leaving the world of legacy systems and their inherent 
limitations not only in technology and the kinds of communication services 
we provide to the public, but as well in the regulatory structure that was 
built up and served well, and to a great degree, administering national 
policy with respect to those sorts of systems.
And so, this really is one of the many opening salvos of an important 
transition, both in terms of the way we provide communication services and 
the way that we regulate them. (Powell, in FCC, 1999).

Here we have the regulators firing off salvos as they cross the rubicon, 
enthusiastically mixing metaphors and confusing media, messages, and the 
meaning of private property in the electromagnetic spectrum. The 
underpinning assumption of the new (de)regulatory push for bandwidth is 
that, in our new technical environment, modes of communication between 
people have become qualitatively indistinguishable. Here is what US Federal 
Communications Commissioner Chrust has to say about any perceived need to 
distinguish between modes of making meaning in the mediation processes in 
terms of its relevance to allocating bandwidth: ‘I would say that if not 
already, in the very immediate future, it gets rather basic. Bits is bits. 
Voice is data. Data is voice. Video is data. They're all the same’ (Chrust, 
in FCC, 1999).

There is much in history to refute Commissioner Chrust’s implicit and 
explicit assertions here: “bits is bits”; radio waves is radio waves; space 
is space. Divisions of labour in media policy appear to be built on 
misunderstanding of the qualitative aspects of mediation. If, for instance, 
we assume that all data is qualitatively the same, even if only from the 
perspective of its existence as it “passes through” a particular 
technological space, we miss the whole significance of mediation - a 
process that involves people, their cultures, and their historical and 
extant knowledge economies (cf. Innis, 1951; Silverstone, 1999, chapts.1-2; 
McLuhan 1964). We might as well say “trucks is trucks”, regardless of what 
they are transporting, where, and to whom. Or that "factories is 
factories", regardless of whether their content is nuclear weapons, golf 
balls, soap, or mechanical means of death. From that perspective, “all 
roads lead to Rome” and the rest is so much irrelevant detail.



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