The radio spectrum – the electromagnetic space through which radio and TV broadcasts, mobile phone and GPS signals and WiFi networks circulate - is the real estate of the information society. Its invisible infrastructure is the largest engineering project in the history of man; its gradual colonisation and conquest throughout the 20th century has radically transformed the structure of society, the shape of cities and the relationship between individuals.
In spite of this, there’s a lot we don’t know about the spectrum: who owns it, how it’s managed, who decides how it’s used. Although supposedly a scarce and valuable resource, discussion about the spectrum is not a political priority and its regulation is rarely subject to public scrutiny. While the "Lords of the Spectrum" (the military, broadcasting industries, telecommunications providers) have enjoyed exclusive rights to the most useful frequencies for decades, the comparatively insufficient public frequencies have produced some of the most socially beneficial innovations, such as wireless Internet networks. From many different areas, there is an increasing demand that we begin to understand and manage the frequency system as public space, because we are increasingly taking more and more social processes and dynamics out of the streets and into the airwaves.
Now that contrary standards such as third-generation mobile phone services and wireless are competing for the same users, it is becoming an urgent priority to reclaim the right to make decisions about the most socially fruitful uses of the spectrum. Are more TV stations and video messages on our mobiles really what we need? Do we want technologies that allow us to be participants, or just consumers?
Artists, designers and activists are being the first to make the leap to appropriate Hertzian space and rework it to subvert its ends. Sometimes, by making what occurs in the realm of the airwaves visible, and mapping it to show how in the spectrum the borders between public and private space blur. In other cases, by encouraging the use of wireless networks to create active location-based communities, as used to happen in public squares or parks. And in almost all cases, by showing how our current use of the spectrum depends more on political and commercial decisions than in the full reach of its technical potential.
Somewhere in between the utopian discourse of those who want a commons of the airwaves and those who subvert and hack communication protocols and devices in total rejection of the controlled use of this technology, those who reclaim the spectrum are anticipating a political and social debate that was missing in the 20th century and cannot be postponed in the 21st.