The Bahrain Telecommunications Regulatory Authority is about to pass a controversial law. According to critics like the Open Spectrum Foundation the law would place unncessary burdens on the country’s citizens and risk the country’s reputation as a regional leader in science and technology.
Under the new regulations, anyone using Bluetooth would need a license. That means every citizen trying to use a Bluetooth headset with their mobile phone would need a license from the government. The same law applies to WiFi. That means every citizen using WiFi to connect the computers in their home would need a license. And each of the country’s coffeeshops that offer internet access through WiFi would have to get a license from the government.
The first indication that the law is unnecessary comes from the TRA’s own press release: “Most countries worldwide do not require users of this spectrum to even register in order to be able to use it”. These countries include the USA, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and most of Europe. The only European countries that do require registration like the TRA’s are Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro, Italy and Switzerland. Apart from Switzerland, these are the countries in Europe that have made the least developed information technology infrastructure and industries. When Italy passed its legislation in 2003 many criticized it as a sign of the inability of the regulator to understand the proper deployment of the technology and local companies are still lobbying to lift these restrictions.
Perhaps the most damaging effect of this law would be a tarnishing of Bahrain’s regional reputation for efficient regulation and business-friendly atmosphere. Both Singapore and Israel have avoided such legislation, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia do have these regulations. The TRA could be wasting an opportunity to further distinguish itself from its neighbours at a time when their cash-laden governments are posing increasing competitive threats in luring foreign investment and technology companies.
To see why the legislation is misguided it is helpful to understand the original reason for regulating wireless transmissions. Congress passed the first Radio Act in 1912 in response to public outrage over reports that radio interference and false messages hampered rescue of the survivors from the Titanic. Given the technology of the time it was decided that each government should allocate exclusive licenses for transmissions at each frequency so that interference would be minimised. This is why governments allocate licenses for radio and TV stations and mobile telephone companies.
However, WiFi and Bluetooth are different to these older technologies. They are designed for short-range transmission – 100 metres for WiFi and 10 for Bluetooth – and do not interfere with other standard devices broadcasting at the same frequency. Regulation is thus only necessary to ensure that the frequencies are left to standard-compliant devices, after which minimal intervention by the government is likely to lead to maximal usage by citizens and the private sector.
The deadline for commentary on the TRA’s legislation is July 20th and already opposition is building online. The Open Spectrum Foundation started a petition, supported by Bahraini blogs like mine, to voice these concerns. The Foundation is a Dutch nonprofit organisation that compares the wireless legislation of different countries to promote the spread of more open policies. I urge all Bahrainis to sign the petition at www.petitiononline.com/BHWIFI/petition.html and hope that TRA amends the legislation before passing it.