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March 16, 2007

More on Frequency Regulation – It Matters

Spent the morning immersed in FCC filings on the subject of some of the frequencies which will be freed up in 2009 by the switch to digital TV- 76 to 88 MHz, 174 to 216 MHz, 470 to 608 MHz, and 614 to 698 MHz..  Turns out there’s a lot going on.  How the FCC – and perhaps Congress – handle disposition of these frequencies will be extremely important to US competitiveness in a global economy as well as critically important to better broadband service – particularly but not only in rural areas.

The key issue, which I wrote about some earlier this week, is the disposition of the “whitespace” – should it be available for unlicensed use or auctioned off to licensees? Should mobile device be permitted to use the whitespace frequencies or just fixed devices?

Whitespace consists of:

  • spaces between broadcast channels which used to be needed as a buffer in analog days,

  • frequencies which can’t be used for broadcast TV in particular locations because broadcasting on them would interfere with broadcast in a adjacent locations but could be used by lower-power applications without causing interference,

  • frequencies which aren’t used in particular locations because nobody happens to have a broadcast facility in that location which uses them.

In 2004 The FCC issued a notice of proposed rule making saying that most of the whitespace would be made available for unlicensed use. They got lots of comments; they made no rules.  In October of last year the FCC essentially reopened the question in a further notice of proposed rule making.  There are some new questions in this further notice about how devices in whitespace avoid interfering with licensed signal since the whitespace available is not the same everywhere and, in particular, how mobile devices could detect which frequencies are available for them to use as they move about.  Unfortunately, the presumption that the whitespace will be made available for unlicensed use is weakened in the most recent FCC document.

There are three reasons why it’s important that these frequencies be available on an unlicensed basis: innovation, better broadband availability, and better use of the available frequency spectrum.

In an excellent comment filed with the FCC by a number of organizations including The Consumer Federation of America and Common Cause, the chart below shows how innovation has flourished since frequencies have been opened up for unlicensed use:

Devices

Note the flat line of devices being invented to use the licensed frequencies vs. the explosion of devices including WiFi, BlueTooth, and many other technologies we now take for granted in the unlicensed space. We really don’t want to deny ourselves a part in the wave of innovation that can happen on the ex-TV frequencies.

Internet accessibility has exploded thanks to WiFi and the use of other unlicensed radio spectrum for fixed access by WISPs.  This happened even though only “junk” frequencies – those shared with microwave ovens, for example – were made available for unlicensed use.  The former TV frequencies are “good” frequencies.  They go through leaves and walls; they go further.  A common estimate by informed sources is that using the now unlicensed junk frequencies for a wireless buildout requires six to eight times as many towers as would be required if the former TV frequencies could be used.  This is particularly important in rural areas where wireless will be the last mile for many for a long time to come and where there are many leaves to penetrate.  The chart below from dailywireless.org shows some examples:

Channels

Finally, unlicensed use is the best way to use the “swiss-cheese” of whitespace which will be available.  Licensees won’t bid much for a frequency available only in one spot or which may later go into use.  On the other hand, the new generation of devices proposed for unlicensed use in these frequencies adaptively use whatever is available wherever they are.  It’s serendipitous that there’s the most whitespace in the same places where there’s the most need for better Internet access.

Two bills have been introduced in the Senate to speed up what seems to be an interminable FCC process.  A bill from Senators John Kerry (D–MA) and  Gordon Smith (R-OR) would require the FCC to allow unlicensed use of this spectrum within 180 days of enactment.  Another bill from John Sununu (R-NH) has a 90 day deadline but allows the FCC to reserve some of the frequencies for licensed use.  Note that if you are automatically sensing unused frequencies you actually can start before 2009 when more frequencies will become available.

The FCC comment period is now over but there is no indication of what action the FCC will take when.  The legislative spurs may well be necessary.

Eventually, I think, almost all frequency will be open (unlicensed).  We need these good frequencies opened now. 

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