Science & Technology

Wireless Revolution

Defiant Indians


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 1940s 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.

Behind the initiative is a tinkerer and gadfly named Dewayne Hendricks, who serves on the FCC's Technological Advisory Council. With the commission moving glacially at best, he's been looking for other places to try out his ideas. First he used his amateur radio license to set up a wireless network over a 35-mile radius in the San Francisco Bay Area. "As a ham radio operator, I have access to lots of radio spectrum," he notes, "as long as I don't use it for commercial purposes." Word eventually reached the crown prince of Tonga, who in 1998 invited Hendricks to bring wireless networking to his regulatory tabula rasa. In 2000, though, that project fell apart -- due to the "nature of the financing," says Hendricks, who then shifted his efforts to the Indian nations.

Meanwhile, in cities and on campuses around the country, hackers have been building freenets: small-scale, nonprofit networks like Hendricks'. "You basically open up your computer and in a second you're connected at broadband speeds to the Internet," says Lessig. "Our intuition is that radio is not a reliable way of communicating -- think of the difference between a land line and a cell line. But these technologies are highly reliable. You can have a bunch of different machines sitting in the same room all connected to the wireless server with no apparent impact on each other."