The FCC will meet on Thursday to vote on a proposal to open up a larger swath of wireless spectrum to licensing than was opened at the dawn of TV remote controls, baby monitors, cordless phones and WiFi networks. The most likely candidates to fill that new spectrum are connected devices, or the Internet of Things, which are now coming online faster than new human subscribers to leading mobile phone networks.
"This will also be a platform for innovators and entrepreneurs," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told the New York Times in an in-depth report last week. "There is every chance of this leading to the development of one or more billion-dollar industries." Beyond the possible economic impact, the move may have substantial cultural consequences, as the spectrum is opened up through which our refrigerators, toasters, exercise equipment and city streets can publish data about their activities to the Internet.
Why will people want that data to be published online? Because when it is, services can be built based on tracking changes to the activities of our devices. That might mean faster detection of problems in a city, and it might mean grocery staples are automatically put on your online grocery list when your refrigerator senses that you're all out. Most likely, it will mean that the activities we engage in socially and individually will become monitorable via online portals, where we can track progress, be notified of alerts and receive recommendations based on past behavior and current circumstances.
Above: IBM's video introduction to the Internet of Things.
Some critics fear that this instrumentation of everyday objects could come hand-in-hand with a growth of surveillance of our activities, locations and more. The technology is moving ahead much faster than policies, or even discussions, about privacy and user control over data.
Who owns the data your washing machine publishes to the Web? It's handy that a website may be able to recognize what kind of washing machine you have and when it may be in need of repair, but what happens if your landlord notices you've been doing a lot of laundry lately and asks if you've got too many people staying in your rented house?
Such possible indignities are a minor risk, compared to the possible political and civil liberties consequences in a world of connected devices. Almost no one appears to have begun those conversations, yet the technology moves forward.
D.C.-based reporter Edward Wyatt calls Thursday's vote to open the spectrum virtually guaranteed in his Times write-up. He focuses on the potential creation of super-powerful Wifi networks. "The stronger, faster networks will extend broadband signals to bypassed rural areas and allow for smart electric grids, remote health monitoring and, for consumers, wireless Internet without those annoying dead zones," he writes.
The new spectrum is available because TV's transition from analog to digital means a much smaller buffer of spectrum needs to remain unused for fear of interfering with broadcasts.
These days wireless spectrum isn't just used for broadcast anymore. It's also used for communication, between people and between machines.
Last month, leading wireless industry analyst Chetan Sharma released a report finding that more network connected devices came online with AT&T and Verizon last quarter than did new human subscribers.
Where data can be transmitted, it can be analyzed - and where data can be analyzed, patterns and thresholds can be detected. Where patterns and thresholds can be detected, services can be invented based on those patterns and thresholds. Where a new greenfield of data emerges as the foundation for new inventions, we may find a new and important platform for economic and cultural innovation.
What devices would you like to see intrumented and brought on line? Those conversations will likely begin to draw more attention if the FCC votes as expected on Thursday.