Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 18

This is Episode 18 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Dewayne Hendricks, CEO of Tetherless Access, joins Chris on the show about the potential of wireless. Listen to this episode here.


Lisa: (music playing) Hello, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits podcast, a production of the Institute for Local Self Reliance and This is Lisa Gonzalez.  In our 18th episode, Christopher Mitchell talks with Dewayne Hendricks, CEO of Tetherless Access. Dewayne has been actively involved in telecommunications for decades. Dewayne's work has contributed to the foundation of what we now consider wireless networks and he continues to push the envelope. Dewayne and Chris have an enlightening conversation about the potential of wireless. As part of their discussion, they touch on how so much potential has been lost, mostly because Washington D.C. is heavily influenced by powerful corporate broadcasters and huge telcos. This is an interesting discussion that you won't hear anywhere else. Let's listen. 

Chris: Dewayne Hendrix, thank you for coming on Community Broadband Bits. You're the CEO of Tetherless Access and broadband cowboy now for ten years. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your background?

Dewayne: I got my amateur radio license when I was 13. I don't know what people know about amateur radio, or also known as ham radio. It allowed me to really learn radio from people- My mentors were people that were in the Signal Corps in WWII, so they really knew how to do radio. I got used to being able to talk to anywhere in the planet that I wanted to. Under the amateur radio rules, you can basically build and deploy your own equipment. As long as you stay within amateur radio spectrum, then you can do anything, effectively. You don't have to ask the FCC for permission. For instance, with the class of amateur radio license I had, which was Amateur Extra, I can actually put a satellite up into orbit and operate it without asking the FCC for permission for the transmitters and stuff up in the satellite. And hams have done that. That gives you an example of - It's like I said, you can do anything. As a result, people like me have really a different view of wireless than people like you who use Wi-Fi. 

Chris: Great, and actually I think also you're sort of a line of defense, right? If we had a major national emergency and the telecommunication lines went down, the amateur radio are a backbone to provide communication services. Is that right?

Dewayne: That's right, yeah. We've done that for almost 100 hundred years. I mean, amateur radio's been around for almost a hundred years. I carry what's called a handie talkie with me all the time that's charged up that allows me to plug into the local emergency infrastructure wherever I am. 

Chris: You've been involved in a lot of different broadband projects. Maybe I can just start by actually asking you to talk a little bit about one that you are particularly interested in or one that really intrigued you. 

Dewayne: My commercial career, I was co-founder and CEO of a company back in 1990 called Tetherless Access. Tetherless' mission was to deploy metropolitan area internet broadband, and we used spread spectrum radios that we built ourselves. We started in 1990. If you can imagine that time frame, our business plan, or what we were trying to do, people thought we were nuts. It took until about 1994 before we were able to raise any venture capital money. Tetherless actually went public on NASDAQ in 1996, stock symbol was TALW, and at a side point it had a market cap of 400 million. We had installations in China, all over the world, of these spread spectrum radios. And then two years after we went public, we were gone, because lot of the wireless companies of the 90's basically disappeared by 2000. One of the last ones being Metricom and their ricochet system. A lot of people don't know about ricochet. Metricom and my company were one of the two public companies of that period, I think there were a few more, but none of us survived into 2000. 

Chris: Let me take a step back for a second because this is a history I'm not all that familiar with. You were obviously involved with this long before more people ever heard of the internet, started using email. Let's just start with spread spectrum. Just a five second answer, what is spread spectrum?

Dewayne: It's a wideband modulation method that was classified until the mid-70s and then the FCC mounted an effort to get, under the Carter administration, to get rules in place to allow spread spectrum to be used in the commercial services. What you can do with spread spectrum is something called spectrum overlay, where you can overlay existing signals like TV or land mobile radio, and not cause an interference. 

Chris: I think that's sort of the key that I was looking for, was the lack of interference. That's always been the issue with spread spectrum that intrigued me the most, I think. The ability to share a resource. 

Dewayne: Exactly. During the Carter administration, which you remember is the late 70s, the government had run out of spectrum. I mean, you hear this litany all the time. We have a spectrum crisis, we have a spectrum crisis, every chairman of the FCC has the same line that they just dig up over and over again. It's never ending.  During the Carter administration they brought a guy in named Chuck Ferris, who was the chairman of the FCC at the time, and he brought in an ex-DARPA director. They had what was called the Office of Science and Technology. Right now it's called the Office of Engineering and Technology. You see the difference? Science and Technology, Engineering and Technology? They brought a lot of scientists and engineers into the FCC to do interesting things, so at that time the FCC actually worked with industry to run experiments! They did spread spectrum experiments.  They commissioned the Miter Corporation to do a study on how this spread spectrum technology could be used as a new spectrum management tool. That let to a notice of inquiry being released in 1981, which was when the Reagan administration was in power, which they proposed essentially taking the entire radio spectrum and turning it into an open commons. No bans. Nothing. Just open commons.  Using spread spectrum, you could go anywhere. Think about that. That was a very radical proposal for the time, to get rid of the property model that had been in use since the commission was formed in 1934. 

Chris: Right. It's a fascinating approach. We have a few bans that operate under that model, but it's pretty limited, right? 

Dewayne: Yeah. Well, what happened was in 1984 they put out rules. There were a few bans that were excluded, or parts of the spectrum that were excluded, for radio astronomy, for instance. But the NTIA signed off on this FCC proposal, and notice of proposed rule making is when you're basically saying, "Here's what the law's going to be." In that one year, from '84 to '85, is got cut down into the Part 15 rules that you know today with the three little bans. People don't know this history, but if you read that 1984 NPRM and say, "Wow. If this had happened, everything would be different!" You got to understand, I was part of that effort then. Amateur radio played a big part of that, because a lot of spread spectrum were built and deployed by hams to show that you could over-weigh existing services and not cause them harm. If you look at what's happened with unlicensed Part 15, where it was going to be this tragedy of the commons, and, you know, all this crap that never happened? Think about radios that use real spread spectrum, because we moved away from spread spectrum. 802.11 was be, was spread spectrum, was direct sequence spread spectrum. 

Chris: For people that are unfamiliar, that's one of the protocols for Wi-Fi. 

Dewayne: That was the early Wi-Fi, all right? Then we moved away from that to this OFDM modulation method, which is not spectrum overlay. Now we have this same spectrum crisis because we haven't changed the model like they tried to do starting with the Carter administration. Now they're talking about white spaces and dynamic sharing and stuff like that, but if you look at it in a context historically, with what they were trying to do with that 1981 NOI, what they're proposing now is a pale shadow of that bold stroke. 

Chris: Right now, for instance, televisions and the television broadcasters, it's a very dumb system, right? They sort of get this swath of spectrum, this territory that they basically have exclusive control over so they don't have to worry about anyone else doing anything. So they have very dumb transmitters and receivers, is that fair?

Dewayne: That's correct. 

Chris: What you're proposing is not that we reserve these different areas of our spectrum, of which there's a limited amount, effectively, when you use it in this matter. Instead, you have receivers and transmitters, which was really the same thing, I guess, transceivers?

Dewayne: Transceivers, yes. 

Chris: They're smart. And they understand not to talk over each other. 

Dewayne: It goes further than that. It uses wave forms, these wideband wave forms, that have essentially a low power spectral density. Think of it, you know what the noise floor is? These system operate under the noise floor. To a conventional receiver or transceiver, they would look like noise. That's spectrum overlay. 

Chris: What you're talking about now is that you can even hide yourself, so you're not even disturbing the existing dumb systems. 

Dewayne: Yes. Spreading means you spread your power spectral density over a wide swath of the spectrum. Conventional narrowband transmitters put it all in a very small piece of spectrum. You see?

Chris: Is there a distance limitation to that, then?

Dewayne: No. 

Chris: You're just able to do because you're spreading it over such a wider area?

Dewayne: Right. One way to think of spread spectrum is like it's cryptography. Think of public cryptography. A spread spectrum signal, basically you take a data stream and you encrypt it with a key. This spread process, or this encrypting process, spreads out the signal, because essentially you're taking one data stream and mixing it with another and the product of that is a much larger data stream. You're spread this over a wide swath of spectrum. The way to receive that is you use the same key you used to encrypt the data stream, and you decrypt it. What happens is the signal comes out of the noise. Got it? It appears because you applied the right key, and now you're looking at all that energy, and it essentially correlates, and boom. There it is. 

Chris: In the meantime, you're not stopping anyone else from communicating or transmitting? 

Dewayne: Yes. 

Chris: Why hasn't this become common practice over the years?

Dewayne: Politics. 

Chris: The reason for everything, right? 

Dewayne: Unfortunately, yes. What happened in that '84 - '85 period is that, you see, once the federal government goes to that NPRM stage, that means they're putting rules out. All the opposition came out of the woodwork, okay? National Association of Broadcasters. Think about it, because look at the public policy issues. They had this property they had been given by the government and now- Okay, I have a little parable that will give you this.  Let's look at the current auction scheme where companies buy spectrum. Let's just pick, say, AT&T goes and buys some spectrum for 4 billion dollars, and they're going to use this spectrum to deliver services, okay? They think they have exclusive use of that spectrum. I come along with this new spread spectrum technology, and I can essentially operate over their spectrum and not cause them any interference. I can offer the same services, and compete with them, and my business model's different because I didn't have to pay 4 billion dollars for the spectrum. I just had to invest in my spread spectrum technology radios. AT&T looks at this and says, "Hey, we're losing money to these guys." They go to the FCC and say, "These guys are using our property. You got to do something about it."  The FCC sends their measurement trucks out and they do all these measurements and stuff, and they come back to AT&T and say, "Look, by the law we can only act when there's interference. We don't see any interference, so we can't do anything. We're sorry." AT&T says, "You know damn well they're using our property. That's not right. We paid for this." They go to their Congress critters and say, "Look, we want out money back. We're getting our clock cleaned by these guys." The Congress critters go to the FCC and say, "Look, you know, you got to put a stop to this, because we can't return the money because we already spent it." The FCC says, "Look, we can only, essentially we're an enforcement agencies, and we can only enforce the laws that you pass. The laws say that there's nothing we can do because we can't show interference." The Congress says, "Well, gee, that's not right."  Look at the public policy issue. Who's right? In that AT&T in good faith paid 4 billion dollars for the spectrum, but in terms of innovation and stuff, I'm deploying this new technology and I can re-use that spectrum efficiently. Who's right? But you see the nature of the public policy issue? That is why this hasn't happened. 

Chris: Fundamentally, it seems like biggest issue is that we still think of spectrum as we understood it before Hedy Lamarr came up with the spread spectrum ideas. I mean, it was a long, long time ago, right? 

Dewayne: Yes. 

Chris: But our way of thinking about how to deal with this in policy, it seems like it has not changed, because there's this perception that if we were to move forward with a new paradigm in which we could all benefit from using the spectrum, that would somehow be unfair to those who have already been using it in the way that they had done. 

Dewayne: Bingo. 

Chris: Because they had paid money for it. Even though, I run into this all the time, it's not like AT&T, it's not like they're losing somehow, ultimately. They made a ton of money off of that, right? Sure, they paid 4 billion dollars, but they probably made 10. In my mind, it's a loser of an argument for them to  complain that somehow it's unfair that there's new technologies that allow us all to be better off. 

Dewayne: To you, it might be that way. 

Chris: Indeed, I'm not a shareholder of AT&T, to my knowledge. 

Dewayne: It's a very difficult public policy issue, but what it does is essentially it freezes innovation. You see this at the Commission, companies come in, White Square, all these other companies with great technology, and they go through a rule making process that can take ten years. 

Chris: Do you see a path forward for changing this? What's the best mechanism we have for having a world in which wireless is better suited for all of us to use efficiently? 

Dewayne: In our current crony capitalism form of government, it's tough to plot any- You know, look at Larry Lessig and his Rootstrikers, you know? Everything goes into the same bucket. We have a problem with crony capitalism. The 1% owns the government and they do what they want. The rest of us that try to move things forward, we've got to change the system. Now how do we do that? Larry hasn't figured it out, you know? It's going to be difficult, but I do have a way to move it forward. This is a big planet. There's a lot of governments. For instance, I own a telecom company in the Kingdom of Tonga. In Tonga, I can use the radio spectrum any way I want. What you do is you go to other countries that are more receptive to innovation and you deploy these technologies. They'll be smaller markets, but you can make money in smaller markets delivering services with these innovative technologies. You can have essentially a system. Now how you change things here, is you can deploy in Tonga, make money. Not run an experiment or whatever, you actually make money commercially, and you can go to the Congress here and say, "Hey look, these people in Booga-Booga have technology that make us look, in comparison, like cave people! If we don't change our rules, we're just going to fall further and further behind to these other parts of the world." If that dollars and cents argument doesn't affect change in our system, nothing else will. 

Chris: That makes sense. It's not just a matter of proving the technology works, it's creating an incentive for people like me, who wouldn't otherwise know about that technology, to say to my Congress critter, as you call him or her, to say, "Look, I know that this technology's out there. Other countries have it. It's working terrifically. Why can't we do that here in the United States?"

Dewayne: Yes. I have a plan that I'm working with several other people, which is under the amateur radio rules, I can deploy this technology here in the United States now. We're going to do that. We have a project that I'm really not at liberty to talk about that is going to build new kinds of radios that use these new wave forms. It's all going to be about demonstrating. It'll be Open Source, Open Hardware, we'll be a Creative Commons style kind of project. We can do it under the amateur radio rules and we can provide existence proofs that this stuff works. 

Chris: What would these radios do?

Dewayne: They would do spectrum overlay. They would be able to use the entire radio spectrum. Think of them as smart radio that treat the spectrum like an open commons. They're like cattle on the open range, and the open range is a spectrum. 

Chris: Would I be able to hook my computer to that, for instance, and talk to other computers?

Dewayne: Yes. 

Chris: That's one of the goals, obviously, then. To say, "We can do this right now, under existing laws, using this method."

Dewayne: Right. What we're doing is like- For instance. Isaac Wilder, who's the head of the Free Network Foundation effort, has just gotten his amateur radio license, so now he can participate in this project and run these radios and, you know, quite legally, in the United States. Once you have the existence proof, then you show people what you can do, you see, then you can go to your Congress critter and say, "Hey, look. This stuff works. Let me show you. Come on over here, we'll show you what it works." You do it on the community level. This is going to be grassroots kind of thing. This will be like re-doing community networking, a la what Eben Moglen's been talking about. That's where you start. You go back to the original idea of the internet, which was local. 

Chris: Actually, it even seems like it's more fundamental going back to the original idea of radio. Where the original idea, everyone would have a radio and they'd be able to talk to each other, and it wasn't this idea of a few commercial broadcasters dominating the spectrum. 

Dewayne: Bingo. Exactly. It's like we go back to the past and we turn a different corner. 

Chris: If I'm in a community somewhere, and I'm saying, "Wow, I'd really like to start getting involved with this," where do I go to learn more about it?

Dewayne: When we're ready to be vocal, I mean, come out into public, we will. It's about six months to a year away. 

Chris: You also mentioned the Free Network Foundation seems like it might be a good place?

Dewayne: They're out now, and you go, because what they're offering is radios that are based on Wi-Fi with these principles. You know what autonomous network is? That's an Internet term. Basically, you run a certain routing protocol, like BGP, and you create what's called an autonomous network. Any ISP operates an autonomous network. Then you connect your network to other networks via routers. What the Free Network Foundation is about is making it possible for everybody to run their own autonomous network. 

Chris: So, my neighborhood could have our autonomous network, then? 

Dewayne: Yeah, if you're able, but you have different people that have different skill sets. There will be different kinds of devices that operate under this cloud, let's say, and that some of them won't be autonomous, but others will be. It's like building the Internet like it was in the beginning, where the Internet is independently owned and operated networks, who talk a common language, TCPIP, and they route packets according to the principle of "You route my packets, I route your packets, I don't charge you, you don't charge me."

Chris: Great. It's a fundamentally different thing than I think what a lot of people are used to, which is they think of it as just something they get from Comcast or some other commercial provider. But really, it's just about having a network that talks to other networks. 

Dewayne: Yes. You see, then you build up, you see. You build a local community, you connect to other communities, and you see how it goes. Now people will get a sense of what the Internet really is. It's not the Web, okay?

Chris: It's not just something you access with your browser, you can do all kinds of different things. 

Dewayne: I guess what we're saying is that we've got a grassroots education effort to get underway. That's how revolutions start, you know. They start small. You got to turn people into revolutionaries, and that can be hard. You do it by showing them real stuff. You just don't talk about it, you do it. 

Chris: Right. Actually, I would even take a little bit of issue. I mean, fundamentally. If you show people stuff, they get excited about it, and they find out they can't do it under the present rules, that's what turns them into revolutionaries.  Let me ask you one last question that's very easy. What is with your Twitter handle? I'm curious where it comes from. 

Dewayne: Are you kidding me? 

Chris: No. 

Dewayne: Okay. It's my amateur radio call sign. 

Chris: Okay. I was trying to figure out if it was- It's, what, WA8ZUT?

Dewayne: DZP. Yeah. 

Chris: WA8DZP?

Dewayne: Yeah. Now, that was given to me by the FCC, and actually by treaty it's an international identifier. Nobody else on the planet can use those characters. 

Chris: You don't have to worry about anyone taking your Twitter handle from you, huh? 

Dewayne: That's right. 

Chris: Excellent. I really encourage people to follow you on Twitter, you come up with all kinds of interesting stuff. You also have a newsletter that I know is widely read. Is that an invite-only, or is that something people can subscribe to?

Dewayne: It's not, it's just that, yeah. Just let me know you want to be. It's like Dave Farbar's Interesting People list. Just let me know you want to get on it and it's fine. 

Chris: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. 

Dewayne: Take care, Chris. Good talking to you. 

Chris: Have a great one. 

Lisa: That was Christopher talking to Dewayne Hendricks of Tetherless Access. Dewayne keeps us up to date on regulatory information from his website, You can read several articles about spectrum recommended to us by Dewayne from our website, The Myth of Interference by David Weinberger and False Scarcity by Paul Barron come highly recommended. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail us directly Our handle on Twitter is @communitynets. This show was released on October 23, 2012. Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is called "Got My Modem Working".  (music playing)