Task Force Calls for Modernized Spectrum Policy

The Federal Communications Commission’s Spectrum Policy Task Force told the FCC Thursday morning that the agency needs to modernize its nearly century-old policies on radio frequency management and evolve from a traditional government “command and control” model to a more flexible, consumer-oriented approach.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell created the task force earlier this summer to consider technology advances that could lead to a change in government regulations.

Powell’s call for spectrum reform comes at a time of unprecedented demand for spectrum. The total number of cell phone subscribers jumped from 16 million in 1994 to 137 million this year, and emerging technologies such as ultra wideband hold promise for a new generation of wireless products that can provide new and better services, if spectrum space can be found.

Based on its research and input from four public hearings held in August, the task force concluded, “The time is ripe for spectrum policy reform. Increasing demand for spectrum-based services and devices are straining longstanding, and outmoded, spectrum policies.”

The FCC only released the highlights of the report with the full text and findings to be published and put online next week. Powell has said the FCC is willing to act upon the report as early as its Dec. 11 meeting.

In the overview information released Thursday, the task force questioned the long-held government policy assumption that spectrum is scarce. Historically, the FCC has maintained that spectrum space is limited and tightly controls almost all radio frequencies, granting users ranging from cell phone companies to television and radio broadcasters expensive and exclusive licenses to operate within very specific bands of spectrum.

Free, unregulated spectrum is used by devices including garage-door openers, baby monitors, microwave ovens, remote controls and, increasingly, wireless LANs. In addition, the military, federal agencies, civil air authorities and various state and local agencies control swaths of spectrum.

“Some spectrum bands are heavily used, but many are not in use in all geographic areas or are used only part of the time,” the report overview states. “Thus, there may be opportunities for spectrum-based services or devices to operate in the resulting ‘white spaces’ — including both those that result from variability in the operations of existing spectrum users over time and those that result from the geographic separation of existing spectrum users.”

The task force found that new technological developments could now allow the FCC to increasingly consider the use of time, in addition to frequency, power and space as an added dimension permitting more dynamic allocation and assignment of spectrum rights.

Technology was also cited by the task force as a force to overcome another longstanding assumption underpinning traditional spectrum management: interference. In between each of band of spectrum is unused space. The FCC has guarded these vacant spaces based on the theory that if users are too tightly bunched, interference with each other’s signals will occur.

“The task force recommends the creation of a quantitative standard for acceptable interference that provides both greater certainty for licensees and greater access to unused spectrum for unlicensed operators,” the report states.

Calling the new standard “interference temperature,” the task force recommended establishing maximum permissible levels on a band-by-band basis to place a limit on the noise environment in which receivers would be required to operate.

“To the extent, however, that the interference temperature in a particular band is not reached, users who emit energy below the temperature would operate more flexibly with the interference temperature serving as the maximum cap on the potential RF (radio frequency) energy they could introduce into the band,” the report says.

Finally, the task force said the FCC should base its spectrum policy on a balance of three spectrum rights models: an exclusive use approach, a commons approach and, to a more limited extent, a command-and-control approach.

While the command-and-control model currently dominates today’s policy, the task force recommended, “altering the balance to provide greater use of both the exclusive use and commons model throughout the radio spectrum. To the extent feasible, more spectrum should be identified for both licensed and unlicensed uses under flexible rules and existing spectrum that is subject to more restrictive command-and-control regulation should over time be transitioned to these models.”

Powell welcomed the report, saying, “Today’s consumer demands access to interference-free spectrum when they need it. When we turn on our cell phone, we expect it to work. When we tote our laptops onto the porch, we expect WiFi to deliver broadband. We know what interference is and we experience it virtually every days. It’s not an abstract concept, but rather a hindrance to everyday productivity and leisure. In contrast, when our devices are not on, we could care less about interference or whether spectrum is available.”

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