Back to the Spectrum Future: How a Public Interest Framework Can Create a Wireless Future that Benefits Us All

New paper proposes adopting a model rooted in core public interest principles to help guide us toward a wireless future that serves all Americans.

If you’re at all interested in spectrum policy, “Back to the Spectrum Future: The 20th Anniversary of the Spectrum Policy Task Force” is for you. Twenty years ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell created the Spectrum Policy Task Force (SPTF) to develop a spectrum policy playbook to provide consumers and innovators with access to interference-free spectrum when they need it. In this white paper, I reframe the SPTF’s recommendations for the future and identify key issues that hindered the SPFT’s success—all while using the “Back to the Future” films as an allegory for the future of spectrum policy. To paraphrase Doc Brown, the way I see it, if you’re gonna write a white paper on spectrum policy, why not do it with some style?

Spectrum policy plays a critical role in shaping the future of our society. Just like Doc Brown’s invention of the flux capacitor transformed what was possible in time, wireless innovations today can transform our society and the future ahead. But, the future of the wireless world is not yet written. The spectrum policies we enact today will directly impact what our future looks like. This is both an opportunity and a warning. Do we want to live in a society where everyone has access to reliable and affordable telecommunications services? Or do we want to live in a digitally divided society where only a privileged few benefit from new technologies? 

Unlike Doc Brown and Marty McFly, we do not have a time-traveling DeLorean to help us fix the timeline if we get today’s spectrum policy decisions wrong. This is why I propose adopting a backcasting model rooted in core public interest principles to help guide our spectrum policymakers toward a wireless future that serves and includes all Americans. This approach to policymaking focuses on envisioning a desirable future, then backcasting the policies that we need to adopt today to help us get there. Instead of focusing on the minutiae of technical decisions, a value-based spectrum policy framework allows us to envision the wireless future we want and provides a path toward it. 

Just like how Marty McFly and Doc Brown often use the hindsight they have from their time-traveling adventures to adjust their futures, re-examining the SPTF’s recommendations in light of what did and did not work gives us the opportunity to create a wireless future that benefits all Americans. This paper applies the proposed public interest backcasting model to two key issues that the SPTF addressed: (1) spectrum efficiency and (2) spectrum access models. The paper also addresses two blind spots that the SPTF failed to consider: (1) the stakeholder dynamic and its zero-sum game fallacy and (2) spectrum policy’s impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Policymakers must consider these aspects of spectrum policy if they hope to create a wireless future that benefits everyone. 

As Doc Brown tells Marty in the final movie, the future is what you make it. We have an opportunity to create a wireless future where all Americans have access to reliable and affordable telecommunications services; where spectrum is used effectively to meet the needs of all users; that has ample spectrum for innovative technologies that improve our safety and increase our access to education, economic, and cultural opportunities; that allows society to decide what technologies succeed; and where all stakeholders work together to meet the public’s telecommunications needs. By adopting a policymaking framework rooted in these public interest principles, we can make the wireless future a good one.