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Wireless Eavesdropper

Wireless is a technology derived from the individualism of consumer technologies of the 1980s and 1990s. Only by accident have they led to a peculiar sort of community broadcasting.

Geoffrey Sauer

Issue #48, March 2000

People who know me know I like electronic gadgets, especially ones my friends don't have yet. It started at the age of ten, when my family got a 'TV radio.' I've never found another one like it. It looked just like any other 1970s portable radio, but in addition to AM and FM it could pick up the audio portion of TV broadcasts. You could tune it to any VHF or UHF station. It could run on batteries, so it was truly portable -- which TVs weren't yet. This was great: my friends and I could do things like hang out outside after school and still follow our afternoon serial cartoons. And best of all, none of my friends had one. I think we finally broke it when I was 15 or 16.

For a long time I couldn't find anything to replace it, but eventually I found something almost as cool. In 1997 I got a 900MHz wireless headphone setup at home. You've probably seen these things in mail-order catalogs--they let you plug a transmitter into any audio source, then you can hear the audio through your headphones up to hundreds of feet away. These days I have the transmitter connected to our VCR. If the VCR is tuned to a TV station, the headphones hear that channel.

This means I can do house stuff, like laundry or washing dishes or working out with old gym equipment in my basement, while listening to TV. If my roommates want to watch X-Files or Ally McBeal, I can tune the VCR in to something else. I've found that the vast majority of TV shows don't require visuals: news shows are entirely verbal, with mannequins sitting at a desk and occasional pictures of highway accidents or distraught relatives which I don't particularly need to see. Sitcom humor is sometimes visual, but you can almost always infer what's going on from the dialogue and the laughtrack (which seems simply bizarre when you only have audio). And I don't have cable, so I'm not missing the visual humor of The Sopranos.

I knew, early on, that the technology behind my wireless headphones was peculiar. It's designed for a single person, but it also broadcasts to everyone else with a similar setup who happens to be in range. There's a certain lack of privacy in that. I shrugged off my worries about evesdropping by headphones--my neighbors wouldn't be shocked by my unimaginative tastes in TV fodder. But I found in the first few months that I could sometimes use my headphones to hear my neighbors' wireless telephone conversations.

Wireless telephones are popular, but they're the same sort of bizarre technology as my headphones. If you have one, you probably know that you're actually broadcasting your conversations, but you just don't care. No one seems to worry about it. Maybe people believe the broadcasts are encrypted somehow, although it's actually illegal today in the U.S. to encrypt telephone communications. Nevertheless, Radio Shack now carries 'spread-spectrum' 900MHz devices which are supposed to be more secure, and the FCC is allowing 2.4GHz devices which should be on the market soon. And yet I have two roommates who are more techno-savvy than average, and although all of us know how public wireless phones are, we still have three wireless phones in the house that I can overhear on my headphones.

One night in January, I needed to go back to my office on campus. So I got up from my desk, put on my coat, and walked to the bus stop. About two hundred feet from my house, I realized that I'd left my wireless headphones on -- the local 10 p.m. news became garbled in static as I suddenly exceeded my range.

As I kept walking to the bus stop, however, I was surprised to find that I was travelling into and out of lots of other people's invisible, wireless, 900MHz lives. Someone was listening to classical music. Another was on the phone (you can hear only half of the phone conversation with the headphones I have). And somebody else was listening to a sort of bizarre talk radio show that was either far-left or far-right, one of those Larouchian discourses that's sometimes hard to categorize.

I left the headphones on while I rode the city bus a mile and a half to campus. I was a bit embarrassed and listening to static most of the time, but the other folks on the city bus at 10 p.m. couldn't tell what I was up to by looking at me, and probably wouldn't care.

When I got to campus, I was disappointed by the apparent tastes of students. A classical music station. Lots of top-40 pop. Somebody apparently listening to MP3s, including all-time Internet favorites such as Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" and ABBA's "Dancing Queen." Walking across campus to my office I wandered in and out of about four different 900MHz broadcast radii, taking my time, trying to figure out what kind of invisible culture this is.

I was intrigued.

Ultimately, I was reminded of 'pirate radio,' a term used by officials to describe unlicensed small radio transmitters which exist among youth cultures across the country and are severely fined by the FCC. Stations like Free Radio Berkeley are a part of media lore, easily found in mass media textbooks and taught to undergraduates as part of the history of American popular culture. But pirate radio broadcasters were always subject to arrest for violation of U.S. law.

Wireless phones and headphones are a technology derived from the individualism of consumer technologies of the 1980s and 1990s. Only by accident (and consumers' ignorance) have they led to this peculiar sort of community broadcasting. Now I can broadcast my personal audio choices to all my neighbors, everyone in a 200-yard radius.

I'm still trying to decide what we can do with this sort of technology. Certainly I'd like to broadcast something other than the same pop culture that people can tune into on their own.

The FCC seems to agree--last week it announced new options for low-power broadcasting which are much more reasonable than past $100,000 licenses which have protected commercial broadcasters from local community stations. I look forward to collaborating with neighbors to broadcast items of interest to my neighbors (I could host at least a half-hour per week, I know, and my neighborhood has many retirees who could probably donate more).

And, of course, I'll continue to hope that one of my neighbors will tune in their 900 MHz transmitter to The Sopranos on Sunday or Wednesday nights -- thus saving me from having to buy cable.

Geoffrey Sauer is webmaster for Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 2000 by Geoffrey Sauer. All rights reserved.