Over a year ago, the FCC took a major leap forward on deployment of broadband and rethinking our national spectrum policy by voting to open the unused broadcast channels for unlicensed use (aka the “broadcast white spaces”)(you can find more on our issue page here). The Order left a bunch of questions unanswered, such as who would run the proposed database of available frequencies for white space use — an issue the Order said would be addressed in a future public notice. Petitions for Recon got filed, lots of requests for revision and modification of the rules got made, and then nothing happened.
In fairness to OET, it's been a busy year. First there was the change in Administration, then it was “DTV transition all the time” until the magic June 12 deadline. Then it was bringing on a new FCC Chair and two additional new Commissioners. Then it was “National Broadband Plan all the time.” But still, it was with a tremendous sense of relief that the process had not utterly vanished from the FCC's radar screen that I saw the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology release a Public Notice on the database. At last! We can get moving on this again, and hopefully move forward on the most promising 'disruptive' technology and hope for rural broadband currently in the hopper.
And move we are, in a very peculiar fashion. Rather than resolve the outstanding questions about how the database provider will collect money, operate the database, or whether the database will be exclusive or non-exclusive, the Public Notice asks would-be database managers to submit proposals that would cover these issues. Further, parties have until January 4, 2010 to submit proposals. The FCC will take comment from members of the public on the proposals a month later.
I label this approach “good, but weird.” On the one hand, this seems to my non-engineering and well ordered mind to be totally backwards. How the heck can anyone tell if they want to manage the database when they don't even know what the requirements are. On the other hand, this basically accomplishes the same thing by having would-be operators that have been pestering the FCC to resolve the matter and trying to get the FCC to adopt rules that favor their own technology/business model a chance to stop pretending that these rules are neutral and the opportunity to make their pitch directly to the FCC. It also cuts down on the number of steps until we actually have a functioning database and can start deploying the technology. Finally, having just gone back and looked at the 2008 Order, the FCC was fairly explicit (Par. 221) that this was always the plan.
The FCC is requiring submissions by January 4, 2010. The public will then have an opportunity to comment on these proposals, with comments due February 3 and replies two weeks later on February 18. While this puts a strain on parties trying to assemble proposals — particular if anyone in the public interest community or open source community new to this proceeding wants to put together a proposal, the aggressive time table makes it possible to resolve this proceeding and begin deployment fairly quickly. It still remains for the FCC to resolve the pending Petitions for Reconsideration filed back in the spring, but hopefully it can resolve these simultaneously with the database management proposals. If all goes smoothly, we could possibly see white space rules sufficiently resolved to begin development and deployment by summer 2010 — although I think the end of 2010 may be more likely given the complexity of the remaining issues and the focus of agency personnel on the National Broadband Plan until after February.
But on the whole, I'm very happy indeed. This is a major step forward.
For those who may have lot track since last year, a bit of review. The FCC approved the use of unassigned broadcast channels for unlicensed spectrum access in this Order back in November 2008. In the Order the FCC established that “sensing only” devices (devices that sense occupied channels and avoid them) hadn't proven themselves yet. So the FCC adopted a proposal from Motorola (and grudgingly approved by us in the public interest) that worked like this: There's a database. The database has a list of every occupied channel and the level of exclusion given to the protected licensee in the database. Before a TV white space device can operate, it needs to check the database to determine — based on its location — what frequencies are available, and at what power.
While the concept is simple and straightforward, actual implementation requires resolution of a lot of different details. For starters, although the FCC is supposed to maintain a database of every active licensed user, most folks agree that this database (a) sucks rocks, (b) is incredibly hard to access and manage, (c) is not consistent for all the active users in the broadcast bands (there are a surprising number of secondary services/distinct users in the “broadcast” bands), and (d) wouldn't cover licensed wireless microphones and other mobile users in the band. So how do you ensure that the database is complete and current?
Further, as I noted when the database idea first got an official nod from Kevin Martin, whoever controls the database potentially has a lot of power over who gets on the system, and at what cost. So details on how the white spaces database operates matter, and not just for technical reasons. Will this be an exclusive database manager (it increases accuracy and quality control) or will there be multiple managers (lowers cost and eliminates bottlenecks)? Since this is privately managed, who pays for the service? Is this run on a for-profit or non-profit basis? Can the manager charge licensees to get protected, charge users for access, or both? Or should the FCC require other business models to avoid the problems that arise from charging for access, and if so what would those models be? Who verifies the information put in the database? When does it expire?
The Order left most of this up for grabs, to be resolved by the solicitation of interest in database managers. The Public Notice therefore takes up where the Order left off. It solicits proposals for database managers, requiring the party making the proposal to spell out in detail what the entity intends to do and how it intends to do it. This includes an explanation of the business model, as well as the technical question of how it intends to ensure that it has all the needed information and distributes that information to the fixed and mobile white spaces devices. Entities can offer to do only a portion of the required function, but then need to explain how the rest will get done.
From my perspective, the most desirable model is a non-profit operating on a non-exclusive basis and funded by the industries that benefit. The actual cost of running and managing this is pocket change to the likes of Google, Microsoft and Motorolla (which came up with this scheme in the first place). We shall have to see if they are that enlightened. But whoever is selected, it is important for the FCC to maintain a level of oversight that would prevent this from morphing into a bottleneck at some point in the future. Frankly, this is another reason why a coalition or non-profit with multiple stakeholders would be preferable to a single vender/manager.
Hopefully, we'll know the answer to all these questions by next summer, and we can start bringing cheap wireless broadband via “white fi” to America.