De-Situating Spectrum: Rethinking Radio Policy Using Non-Spatial Metaphors

17 Pages Posted: 22 Aug 2008 Last revised: 3 May 2013

See all articles by Jean Pierre De Vries

Jean Pierre De Vries

University of Colorado at Boulder Law School - Silicon Flatirons Center

Date Written: August 20, 2008


This paper proposes alternative mental models for wireless communication that are structurally similar to the prevailing spectrum-as-territory metaphor, but that use different referents. It explores several non-spatial metaphors, and then focuses in on trademark as a guiding analogy.

In this new approach, a wireless communication system is described by a set of operating parameters that differentiate it from other systems, much as all the elements of a trademark are used to differentiate a particular product from others. Radio interference is likened to the unauthorized use of a trademark and its attendant potential to confuse a customer. The frequencies used in a communication are like the letters of a trade name. The regulator is like the trademark office.

This approach inspires a system of rights different from those prompted by the spectrum-as-territory analogy. Rights and protections are obtained by registering system operating parameters such as transmitter and receiver masks, just as a trademark registration covers a variety of brand attributes. Any set of operating parameters that does not cause harmful interference with an existing operation can be registered. Auctions are possible, but are not essential. The definition of rights is driven by operators, not regulators. Importantly, rights can have an indefinite term, but also can be lost if not used.

Non-spatial metaphors offer a way around the limitations of the existing approach, such as a fixation on frequency, and vague criteria for harmful interference. It restates wireless policy in terms of system operations rather than spectrum, and opens up new opportunities for innovation and use.

Keywords: Metaphor, property rights, radio spectrum management

JEL Classification: L96, O38

Suggested Citation

De Vries, Jean Pierre, De-Situating Spectrum: Rethinking Radio Policy Using Non-Spatial Metaphors (August 20, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Jean Pierre De Vries (Contact Author)

University of Colorado at Boulder Law School - Silicon Flatirons Center ( email )

1070 Edinboro Drive
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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