Edgelings

Andy Seybold Looks At The New FCC

by Andy Seybold

There have been a number of articles recently about what the recomposed Federal Communications Commission might look like. We probably won’t know much about who the new commissioners will be until after January 20, but that doesn’t stop the speculators from writing about the expected make-up and, more importantly, the tenor of the new FCC.

 

We do know President-Elect Obama has made the deployment of broadband on a nationwide basis a priority for his administration (read my new white paper on the subject). But we do not know anything about the three Democrats he will choose that will make up the majority of the FCC, and we cannot know about their leanings until their names are announced.

 

In addition to the articles in all of the wireless magazines, there has also been a great deal of discussion on a number of wireless forums on the Internet. I belong to the Private Wireless Forum (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/PrivateWirelessForum) and its members include owners and operators of private two-way radio shops, seasoned first responder communications professionals, executives who work for commercial network operators, vendors who sell into the wireless community, and an attorney or two who are specialists in all things wireless. To me, this group represents a great blend of people whose careers are in the wireless industry but who tend to look at things differently.

 

Recently, there was a thread on the board that should be required reading for all of the incoming commissioners, regardless of their party affiliation. I can identify with a number of the topics discussed and recommendations made by members of this group:

 

  • 1) No person should be seated as a commissioner without being required to take a course in radio frequency-an RF101 course with an emphasis on the laws of physics rather than the laws of economics or politics.
  • 2) The new FCC commissioners need to hire more engineers to replace the brain trust that has disappeared over the last 10-15 years and integrate them back into the regulatory process.
  • 3) The new FCC needs to beef up its enforcement bureau so interference complaints can be investigated and not simply ignored as they are today.
  • 4) The new FCC needs to reinstate the requirement that any and all technical staff that works with, installs, repairs, and maintains wireless devices demonstrate proficiency and obtain a professional license.
  • 5) One comment I could really relate to was, “A regularity body that does not enforce its own regulations has no integrity.”

 

There were many more really good suggestions, but you get the gist of this discussion. The people who make the rules and regulate the spectrum should at least understand some of the basics and make sure they have competent people they listen to for technical advice. These are all good comments worthy of being passed along to those who will be making the decisions about spectrum usage for at least the next four years.

 

Another set of comments had to do with the failures of prior FCC administrations. The list is long indeed and includes:

 

  • 1) Granting Nextel the right to turn two-way radio channels into a cellular-type network, which in turn caused severe interference to both first responder and commercial two-way radio systems.
  • 2) Then taking years to figure out how to fix the problem, and more years to actually cause the problems to be fixed (this process is ongoing today).
  • 3) Requiring those who operate two-way radios in two different portions of the spectrum (VHF and UHF) to narrowband their radios. The thought behind this was to provide more channels, but the result was that first responders and others had to spend a lot of money to narrowband their equipment (or in most cases, replace it), which reduces voice quality and negates using any of the channels for data services. This at a time when the entire world is going to broadband!
  • 4) Turning the spectrum into a commodity and selling it off to the highest bidder. One participant discussed how he thought the International Telecommunications Union Wireless Act of 1926 stated clearly that no country has the right to charge for the use of its spectrum and that, at the time, the United States was a strong proponent of that statement, if not the originator.

 

The list of mistakes is long, too long to include in this short blog, but the thread makes very interesting reading. Most of the comments were made as constructive criticism from people who have been around the industry for a number of years. These are people who have been in the trenches and have seen the results of the shift in the FCC from an agency that worked with the industry, helped make sure those who had licenses to use spectrum were protected from undo interference, and juggled as best it could all the requests for a finite resource.

The present FCC has moved toward a position of listening to those who are well-intentioned but not savvy in the field of RF and spectrum issues. It has been promising all kinds of things, including more jobs, free broadband everywhere, and more innovation since we now have more unlicensed spectrum.

Yet the last 20 years of innovation has been driven by those who understand that we have a limited supply of spectrum and we have to make more efficient use of it, protect it from degradation, and manage it wisely. In Japan, there are no auctions for spectrum. They award a license and the winner pays a yearly fee per megahertz of spectrum, a one-time fee for each device that is placed on the network, and is required to cover the entire population of the country. All of this is serves as an incentive to make the best possible use of the spectrum Japan has — and that in turn has driven its innovation.

It would be easy to simply sit back and watch what happens over the next four years, but it is more prudent to try to make things work better-not by reverting to the old days, but also not by rushing forward into the unknown, either. There is a middle ground that needs to be found based upon the laws of physics first and foremost, and then economics and politics.