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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

You can't see it, you can't smell it or taste it but it's all around you all the time. We're talking about the wireless spectrum, the waves that ripple through the air around us, transmitting messages to cell phone towers, TV antennas, to the base of your cordless phone for example.

Well, with the coming switch to digital television a part of that wireless spectrum, the 700 megahertz band, will be freed up and beginning this week the government will auction off the rights to use that band.

Timothy Woo is a law professor at Columbia University specializing in communications.

Hi there.

Professor TIMOTHY WOO (Law, Columbia University): Hi there.

SEABROOK: Now, I understand that it's very rare that such a large chunk of the wireless spectrum becomes available for commercial uses, isn't it?

Prof. WOO: There have been good auctions in the past, in the 1990s but this particular band has been occupied by television for about more than 50 years, and so this is a big deal.

SEABROOK: Now the biggest chuck, the one that is national and is going to be used for commercial purposes has attracted all sorts of telecoms giants here, AT&T, Verizon, also Google and other Silicon Valley tech companies. What will they be able to do with this?

Prof. WOO: They will be able to build a nationwide network of some kind, probably for Internet access. And so, you know, people have been talking about wireless Internet for about a decade but no one's really got it. We have these home Wi-Fi units which are fine but no one has cracked the knot on getting a true wireless Internet network that puts the Internet everywhere and this spectrum offers the possibility.

SEABROOK: What about cell phones, how can it change the way cell phones work?

Prof. WOO: The telecom companies own the most spectrums already and so they would like to further their holdings and perhaps corner the market. Verizon is proposing the most aggressively to build a 4G network that is a network that is also like Google, Internet everywhere. They have promised - Verizon has - that if they build this out they will allow anyone to connect anything to it.

SEABROOK: What does that mean allow anyone to connect anything to it, what do you mean?

Prof. WOO: Right now spectrum is regarded more like a private garden or like a living room that is you have to be invited in. You have to use Verizon cell phone to be on Verizon's network. The next - the future is an open access wireless connectivity, that is to say anyone, sort of, inventing a device and selling it to consumers and having that work. And those devices could be anything. They could be cameras that upload pictures, they could be refrigerators that tell the store that they want more milk, and they just could be better cell phones. The point is FCC has stipulated that the spectrum must be open to all devices that don't cause harm to the network and that is a revolution in telecommunications.

SEABROOK: So the analog of that might be when my bell was broken up, and suddenly, you could buy a phone at Radio Shack and plug it into the wall and it worked with whatever phone line you had, right?

Prof. WOO: It's similar to that. The AT&T was forced to open their networks in the late '70s to every single phone that was out there, and that's why you suddenly had Mickey Mouse telephones and race car telephones when before you had a black telephone.

SEABROOK: It sounds like there's some pretty stiff competition here among the different companies. How much do you think this chunk of the spectrum will go for?

Prof. WOO: To quote a friend, this could get crazy. The minimum that people expect is about $10 billion.

SEABROOK: Timothy Woo specializes in communications at Columbia University Law School and he's the co-author of the book "Who Controls the Internet?" He joined us from Park City, Utah.

Thanks very much.

Prof. WOO: It was a pleasure.

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