This weekend I attended the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference in Arlington, Virginia. I am not a policy expert nor a computer scientist- but it was very interesting to see some of “hot spots” of debate and interest in this field. I was most interested to glean a sense of areas of technological developments that are either so new, so pervasive, or both, that it presents a major area of interest in terms of policy development.

Below I have outlined 4 areas that seem to fit into this category, some of the interesting take aways from the conference on these areas, and resources for further explanation/exploration:

1. Wireless grids

Wireless grids are Ad hoc, distributed resource-sharing networks between heterogeneous wireless devices“. As far as I understand it, this technology represents an extension and alteration of the conditions of the traditional Internet as we know it. In particular, these networks provide new affordances in the sense that these networks can be pulled together ad hoc, require no centralized control in the form of a router, and can be made through networks of small hand-held devices (such as the nearly ubiquitous hand-held smart phone).

This technology has many interesting applications, including emergency response systems, means of creating networks in the face of censorship, and definite relevance for the “Internet of things” (explored more in my next point). Yet this technology is also still in a very early stage, and needs more development in terms of the protocols and “middleware” that would help securely organize these networks arising between radically different, non-traditional devices and interfaces.






2. Internet of things

The Internet of Things is closely related to the technologies of wireless grids and the development of new forms of networking generally. The Internet of Things is a phrase that describes a potential network of not just dedicated computing devices (like computers or smartphones), but nearly any appliance or object we wish. This promises new means of remote sensing and remote action. Early instantiations of this idea include home monitoring devices which report data to your smartphone, or simple tracking devices that can be attached to your personal belongings. The Internet of Things would exponentially expand the world of “big data”– and of course–opens up new concerns about the privacy and security of that data.

Although we are seeing some implementations of the Internet of Things on the commercial market, we are still in the very early stages of this technology, with quite a bit of development to go both technologically and (I would argue) in terms of our understanding of the new affordances and possibilities the Internet of Things would allow.






3. Spectrum

Wireless connections are supported by something called “spectrum”- in fact, the same spectrum used by TV and radio broadcasters. Spectrum is a major policy issue because it is a limited natural resource that is approved and managed by the government- the FCC in particular. As it stands, most of the existing spectrum within the range which is physically usable for wireless broadband is already occupied. Although both the government and wireless providers are searching for more efficient ways to use and share this spectrum, given the incredible rise in demand for wireless via tablets and smartphones, many have raised the question of whether we are on the edge of a “spectrum crisis”. Such a crisis would entail drastically dropped speeds, likely prohibiting things like online video streaming and significantly slowing down browsing speeds.

In order to avoid such a crisis, many are turning their attention to technological solutions, as well as possible policy solutions. However, it seems that at some point we will have to turn our attention to bigger questions such as: Is government regulation helping or hindering the process of spectrum management? Would the free market be better able to solve this problem? What if we simply “run out”- are there viable alternatives to spectrum for wireless connections?

Although this topic is somewhat obscure to the general population, it seems like spectrum may be a technological bottleneck we will encounter as the use of mobile devices – and the Internet of Things! – continues to grow.





4. Algorithms

Friday afternoon featured a fascinating panel titled “Governing the Ungovernable: Algorithms, Bots, and Threats to Our Information Comfort-Zones”  (featuring, among others, CCT’s Mike Nelson), exploring the impact of intelligent systems on the world of general consumers. In particular, I was interested in the thread of algorithms, which increasingly determine the types of experiences we have online. These largely invisible technologies have recently gained a bit more spotlight via the Facebook and OkCupid experiments, but overall it seems that these algorithms exist in a kind of shady underworld that is little understood by the average platform user– and yet increasingly these algorithms use deeply personal information to draw deeply personal conclusions– and use these conclusions to create a particular experience, entirely unbeknownst to users.

The key word of this discussion was “transparency”. It was suggested that private companies could go a long way towards gaining more trust from its users by being more transparent about their various methods of data aggregation, data processing, and how they are using this information. From my perspective, this seems highly improbable and highly ineffective (after all, just how jazzed do people get about reading Facebook’s privacy policies…?). This is undoubtably an area that will continue to develop significantly in the coming years— and at some point will need to be addressed by more formal policy initiatives, as we are just beginning to see happening in parts of Europe.






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