Magazine article Reason

Wireless Revolution. (Defiant Indians)

Magazine article Reason

Wireless Revolution. (Defiant Indians)

Article excerpt

A BAND OF American Indians is about to challenge the Federal Communications Commission (Fcc), using their reservations' sovereignty to embrace technologies blocked by the U.S. government.

Government regulations assume that radio transmissions will take place on preassigned portions of the spectrum. But there's another species of wireless communication: spread-spectrum transmissions. "This type of technology doesn't require a central coordinator to decide who gets to use which spectrum when," explains Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and legal adviser to the Indian project. "Every user has a common protocol for saying, 'Can I use it for the following milliseconds?' The technology listens, and if no one is using it then you go ahead."

Spread spectrum was invented in the l940s by, of all people, the actress Hedy Lamarr and the composer George Antheil. For the next four decades, the Defense Department treated it as classified. Since the '80s, though, the technology has progressed in fits and starts, propelled by creative scientists and entrepreneurs but hampered by the government, which has been stingy in allocating spectrum to its use.

Which brings us back to Indian country. Four Native colleges in North Dakota and Montana have decided to use spread-spectrum technology to establish wireless networks on their reservations, as an alternative to more expensive Internet hookups via cable and phone lines. The colleges argue that their reservations' legal status as sovereign nations gives them the leeway to defy the FCC. …

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