The Wireless Innovation Act: Rational spectrum policy

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Senator Marco Rubio has made a strong move for spectrum policy leadership, announcing a plan to introduce three bills that substantially reform America’s spectrum policy at a speech at 1776. John Eggerton described them on Broadcasting and Cable:

The Wireless Innovation Act (which was introduced June 12) to free up government spectrum; a bill directing the FCC to conduct tests in the upper 5 GHz band and modify the rules to allow Wi-Fi so long as it doesn’t create harmful interference to vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications; and a bill to promote wireless infrastructure.

The Wireless Innovation Act (WIA) directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the previously toothless agency that coordinates the use of spectrum by federal agencies, to compile recommendations for the transfer of 200 MHz from the government to the people. This is exactly the kind of institutional change that National Broadband Plan czar Blair Levin and several other commenters have been calling for quite some time. As things stand, NTIA is little more than a lobbyist for the continuation of a fundamentally unacceptable status quo.

Government agencies have exclusive or primary use of four times as much spectrum as commercial mobile network operators, and twice as much as the people can access directly with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. This needs to change, as the National Broadband Plan said four years ago. The Spectrum Incentive Auction is a nice idea, but we can’t expect it to resolve the spectrum crunch all by itself. Similarly, we can’t expect small cells and advanced technologies to resolve the crunch if they’re only applied on the public side: the government needs to get in on the act as well, and we have yet to see any indication that the Administration is taking the spectrum problem seriously.

The PCAST Report on spectrum sharing was certainly a less than helpful approach, as it failed to recommend any additional spectrum for licensed use, and large networks need licensed spectrum to be technically efficient.

WIA gives NTIA a year to compile its report, attaching caveats that the spectrum in question must be located below 5 GHz, not already scheduled for reallocation, and not already used by commercial or other public systems on a primary basis. Sen. Rubio consulted widely with spectrum experts, and has a very detailed sense of the issues in terms of interference, sharing, guard bands, and international harmonization.  WIA covers all the rat holes that a reluctant federal agency is likely to seek out in an attempt not to aggravate its government clients.

The WIA is not the kind of sweeping reform of the government spectrum status quo that we’re going to need eventually, but it’s a strong step in the right direction that tests the resolve of two key constituencies: Senate Democrats and NTIA. If it turns out that the majority is unwilling to give the bill a proper hearing for partisan reasons, the voters will have a very valuable piece of information in November. And if it turns out that NTIA is unwilling or unable to compile a list of spectrum bands that meet the criteria of the bill, that tells all of us that NTIA is not the agency we need it to be and we need a more radical approach. Perhaps the best thing about the WIA is the absolute deadlines it applies to government spectrum users: Three years from the delivery of the NTIA report, they’ll lose their authorization to use the 200 MHz of spectrum (even if they lose the memo.)

200 MHz gets us a quarter of the way to the goal. Given that spectrum technology doubles bits/second/hertz every three years according to Cooper’s Law, it should be easy for federal users to reduce their spectrum footprint by 25% in the same time that the rest of us decrease ours by 50%; it even gives them the chance to take on new missions. But I expect we’ll hear more than a few excuses for inaction.

Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of sensible, rational, and technologically efficient approach to spectrum that’s long overdue.

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