Several years ago, then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell attacked spectrum reform with true revolutionary zeal. Yes, Powell sought to recreate spectrum licenses as property, a move I vigorously oppose. But Powell also fought to make it easier for unlicensed spectrum users by improving the efficiency of the spectrum and facilitating spectrum sharing. Unsurprisingly, wireless incumbents fiercely resisted proposed changes that interfered with their business models.
After the departure of Powell and NTIA Administrator Michael Gallagher in 2005, no one remained to champion controversial wireless proccedings. The Current FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin, has made some progress on unlicensed use, such as affirming that the OTARD rules apply to unlicensed transceivers, moving the broadcast “white spaces” proceeding forward, and — in the technical but highly important category — making it easier for manufacturers to develop equipment for unlicensed use. But Martin has shown no inclination to carry on Powell's crusade for spectrum reform where politically costly.
So Martin has circulated a number of orders terminating proceedings begun by Powell that had the potential to radically transform the spectrum landscape, and which therefore attracted a great deal of industry resistance. Friday saw the termination of two such proceedings: one on
“interference temperature” and one on receiver standards. Briefly, the receiver standards proceeding would have explored ways to make receivers more resistant to interference. Generally, receivers are built as cheaply as possible and rely on the protections of licensing. Build receivers “smarter” and more able to screen out interference and you make it possible to allow other devices to function at a low level in the same spectrum space. This improves the efficiency of wireless services and allows for “smart” or “cognitive” radios to use the available space (often referred to as an “underlay”) and share the space without interfering with a licensed service. While nothing prevents the Commission from allowing the licensee to lease the newly available space via secondary markets, receiver standards were thought to give a boost to unlicensed sharing of licensed bands — and as such were subject to frequent attacks by proponents of converting licenses into a species of property. (Property proponents argued that the licensee could impose needed standards in a more efficeint manner if licensee had financial incentive to do so. I note, however, that the Commission's 2004 Secondary Market Order which would allow licensees to resell such spectrum rights has done nothing to prompt “private commons” leasing arrangements.)
The interference temperature proceeding proposed a measurement for the difference between the protection a licensed service needs to function and the available “background noise.” The range in between was proposed to be available for sharing on an unlicensed basis (or leasing on a secondary basis). The Commission even went so far as to propose a possible testbed band for the puprose of testing whether unlicensed devices could share spectrum on an “opportunistic” basis (i.e., when such use would not interfere with licensed uses).
Again, licensees saw nothing good in the proposal. Just about every single licensee — from broadcasters to cellular providers to anyoen else — argued that it placed licensed services at risk if something went wrong. Unspoken, except by those of us that supported the proposal, was the prospect that coupling smart radios capable of opportunistic sharing with a metric that allowed devices to jump from band to band as available would end the artificial shortage of spectrum that allows many licensees to make a nice living.
Against this united front, Chairman Martin simply decided to drop the proceedings. Unlike Powell, Martin is a practical fellow and not given to ideological crusades with heavy political cost. While that's proven useful to media reformers on ownership — where Martin has taken a far more cautious approch than Powell — it has its cost here. With two votes, the Commission closes the door on proceedings that could have moved our wireless industry light years forward.
You can read the termination notice for interference temperature here, and for receiver standards here. Both orders find insufficeint support in the record for implementing the proposals at this time. They further observe that the record is stale and the Commission can chose to adopt either receiver standards or interference temperature metrics in individual proceedings relating to specific bands and services if such a course would serve the public interest. But, all things considered, time to terminate the general proceeding.
On the positive side, Commissioner Copps (and, to some degree, Commissioner Adelstein), tried to keep an ember of hope flickering for the future. In a concurring statement to the order to terminate the interference temperature proceeding, Copps noted that he had “concerns” about terminating the proceeding in light of comments in the record and academic commentary in support of interference temperature. Copps also noted that termination of this specific proceeding does not foreclose the Commission from taking up the question again, either as a standa alone proceeding or as part of another proceeding. He concluded by hoping that termination of the interference temperature proceeding does not end the Commission's work in this area.
Copps, joined this time by Commissioner Adelstein issued a similar concurrence with the order to terminate the receiver standards proceeding.
I am rather disappointed, but hardly surprised. Everyone who follows this closely has known for some time that Martin would terminate the proceeding as part of his general effort to clean out the FCC's extensive catalog of pending dockets. Indeed, all things considered, this is about the best I could hope for at this time. The Commission did not terminate the proceeding in a way that makes it any more or less difficult to try again later (the decision being based on the state of the current record rather than anything intrinsicly wrong with either idea). I can even sympathize with Martin's desire to close the proceeding rather than leave it pending indefinitely.
And, as one might imagine, I'm extremely grateful to both Copps and Adelstein (although I do wish Adelstein had joined Copps for both statements) for keeping the ember alive to try again. Who knows? Perhaps after January 21, 2009, we may find a Commission more willing to push the tech envelope and less willing to bow to political pressure from wireless incumbents.
But for now at least, these two potentially revolutionary proceedings will fade out quietly into the ether.