Dismantle the FCC? A Really, Really Bad Idea!
The new administration’s transition team assigned to work with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made public comments about dismantling or redefining the FCC. It makes one wonder whether they understand some of the most important functions and duties performed by the FCC. They have been quoted as saying these could be doled out to other federal agencies including the Federal Trade Commission, and the states. The idea of dismantling the FCC is not new; it has been bandied around DC over the years. However, talk such as this shows a lack of understanding of the purpose of the FCC and the depth of knowledge necessary to carry out its duties.
Today’s talk about dismantling the FCC centers on its role in major telecommunications issues such as mergers, acquisitions, net neutrality, and other high-level actions. However, it is important to look deeper into what the FCC does on other levels. Without the FCC, who would oversee the radio spectrum and ensure it is used properly and spectrum users do not cause harmful interference to others also using it?
Politics often plays a role in the arguments over the FCC. Prior to this transition team’s comments about dismantling or transferring the FCC’s responsibilities to other agencies, Congress periodically threatened the same thing as well as defunding the FCC or that portion charged with enforcing a new rule they don’t like or that their lobbyists don’t want on the books.
Today’s FCC under the leadership of Tom Wheeler has spent its time wisely, improving the world of telecommunications and pushing for the adoption of broadband and Internet access for all. Some of the actions taken by the commissioners have been criticized by companies the FCC regulates, by Congress, and even some pundits. However, I believe steps taken by this FCC have been with the goal of modernizing telecommunications and its rules and regulations to carry the FCC and the nation in today’s telecommunications world and take us well into the future.
I suggest that before any one or any group moves forward with plans to dismantle or otherwise change the functions of the FCC they take a much deeper look into the many activities that are absolutely necessary but not generally visible except to those directly involved.
Ask almost anyone inside the beltway about radio spectrum and they will equate it to broadband spectrum they use to download or stream videos, send and receive text messages, and make and receive phone calls. They might also equate spectrum with AM, FM, and TV broadcast stations but they probably won’t mention that the balance of the radio spectrum is used for hundreds of other purposes by millions of people every day.
Included in these uses are Public Safety, utilities, cities, counties, states, business systems, industrial users, alarm companies, the transportation industry, taxis, radio telescopes, satellites including DirecTV, DISH, communications satellites, the Wi-Fi in your home and office, and much more.
While the chart below is basically unreadable (it is a wall-sized chart reduced to fit), it will give you an idea of how much of the existing and available radio spectrum is unused in the United States: NONE! You can get your own copy of this chart here: https://www.ntia.doc.gov/files/ntia/publications/january_2016_spectrum_wall_chart.pdf [Please use the link to view the chart, we are unable to format it to fit here!] Radio spectrum (RF spectrum) is a finite resource, we cannot make any more. However, with each generation of technology advance we are learning to use it more efficiently. Even with these advances the demand for spectrum allocations far exceeds the supply.
Two federal agencies control access to radio spectrum in the United States. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is charged with managing all spectrum used by the federal government including the military, FBI, Secret Service, and others within the U.S. Government that need to communicate. The FCC is responsible for overseeing use of all the rest of the radio spectrum available to us. (According to the Federal Government Accountability Office, 18% of all RF spectrum is controlled by the NTIA, 30% by the FCC, and the balance is shared equally between the two agencies.)
There is also a world body (The International Telecommunications Union or ITU) that oversees all of the spectrum around the world to try to ensure that each region uses it wisely. One of the most important tasks performed by the FCC is to prepare for and take part in the spectrum conferences held every few years to revise how the world makes use of this invaluable spectrum.
The demand from multiple types of users is much greater than the amount of spectrum available today. The FCC determines who needs what type of spectrum and where it is located in the spectrum continuum. Different portions of spectrum have different characteristics and are best suited for specific types of use. For example, AM and FM broadcast channels would not be suitable for commercial broadband services for smartphones and tablets.
Over the course of the FCC’s history, it has reallocated different portions of spectrum for different uses when reallocation proves to be the best way to provide for a new technology or larger demand for service, which is the case in the commercial world of broadband. Reallocation of spectrum or some other change to provide additional spectrum for a specific use takes a fair amount of planning. Existing users must be moved somewhere else in the spectrum without costing them money. For example, in 1996 the FCC converted what had been a microwave, point-to-point portion of the spectrum to spectrum for use by cellular carriers (the PCS band). Incumbent microwave users were relocated into a higher portion of the spectrum and the moves were paid for by the winning bidders of the PCS spectrum. This took a great deal of coordination and an understanding of the technologies involved.
The FCC regulates and licenses use of spectrum to wirelessly enable as many people and organizations as possible. Rules are applied and must be met by those wishing to obtain a license for spectrum use. The rules are in place not to limit new users but to protect existing users from harmful interference and interruption of their service. Without these rules, overseen by people who understand the attributes of radio spectrum, those using the spectrum would have no protection from others who might decide to use the same spectrum for different purposes.
One example of this is the 27-MHz Citizen’s Band (CB radio). When the FCC authorized this band of channels in the 1960s it required users to have an FCC license and obey power restrictions but those who discovered CB soon ignored these requirements. The CB band is still in use today mostly by over the road truckers but the FCC has long since stopped trying to enforce the rules for this band. It was too popular and too many people ignored the rules and regulations, making today’s CB band virtually unusable except for short distances.
The FCC also has regulations about what types and how much radio emission is permitted by non-spectrum-using devices. PCs, iPods, and many devices not designed to use radio spectrum still emit radio signals. The FCC limits how much radio energy they can emit in order to prevent them from interfering. An example of what can happen when the rules are not followed occurred when LED lights first came on the scene, Many of them interfered not only with Wi-Fi but with Public Safety radios and others. The wireless industry and the FCC worked together to identify the problem and then the FCC notified the offending vendors. With few exceptions, problems caused by LED lights have been resolved. Without a technically competent organization such as the FCC, the problem would have gone unchecked and could have severely limited use of the spectrum in many locations.
FCC rules and regulations are not arbitrary; they have been developed over the years to reduce potential for interference while permitting the most and best possible use of radio spectrum. In many radio services, volunteer and for-pay frequency coordinators local to a region who understand existing users and their coverage must first sign off on a request for spectrum usage prior to a license application being filed with the FCC. The combination of local frequency coordination followed by the FCC’s review of the license application has proven effective in ensuring that new spectrum users do not impact existing users.
In a recent case a satellite company (LightSquared) wanted the FCC to grant a waiver so it could use its satellite spectrum for terrestrial broadband. The industry, the military, and others determined that granting the waiver would essentially make GPS satellites for location determination useless anywhere near a DISH cell site. The FCC responded by denying the waiver request.
Without an organization such as the FCC that employs savvy technology people as well as appointed officials and many attorneys, the radio spectrum would be like the wild west and as a result our economy would suffer and many things we take for granted today would not be possible.
Today it is even more important than ever to have a federal organization with both the political and technical expertise to make sure the spectrum remains available for all of us, especially now as we head into technological changes the likes of which we have never seen. There will be sharing of spectrum, software-defined radios, cognitive radios smart enough to move around the spectrum and not interfere with other users, and, of course, the advent of 5G broadband. 5G is all about making more effective use of the limited spectrum we have and using spectrum that has, until now, been considered only good for short-range point-to-point microwave. Add to that the fact that many vendors are now looking at ways to use these same portions of the spectrum to deliver gigabit broadband from the street to the house or office and avoid the expense of having to run fiber to each and every house and office building.
Then there are the issues of rural broadband, which for the past few years has been a centerpiece of this FCC’s priorities. Today those in Congress want and need all of their voters to be connected to the Internet, be they rural, metro, poor, affluent, but not served. This will require the participation of many commercial operators, additional funding, and the ability to coordinate who is doing what, where. I believe the FCC has done a good job of defining the needs and has begun the task of extending broadband to all.
Those who believe all that is needed for communications is broadband smartphones and tablets do not understand that there are many other forms of radio communications going on around us every day. They may not understand that cellular broadband networks can and do become overloaded and calls are dropped or missed. During the terrible fires in Tennessee the text message to evacuate did not reach many of those who needed to be alerted. Cellular networks are best-effort but emergency services need mission-critical networks.
Recently the FCC met with the commercial operators to explore how they could make their networks more robust. The industry has responded and is finding ways to provide coverage to their customers even during storms, fires, and man-made disasters. Though these upgrades will cost the operators a fair amount of money, they have assured the FCC that they will work toward increasing reliability. While the FCC retains the right to force networks to upgrade, it is always better when it and commercial providers of cellular and broadband service can agree on something that is needed without having to resort to more rulemaking.
I doubt that many if any elected or appointed officials in DC even know about the FCC’s office in Gettysburg, Pa. This is where the licensing for spectrum users takes place and where the massive database of users, locations, and call signs is created and maintained. Without this service and database, those who are being interfered with or who want to apply for a license for a portion of the spectrum would be lost. This service is vital to all of us because it provides assurance to licensees that they can operate in a specific portion of the radio spectrum without interference.
This is in contrast to the Wi-Fi portions of the spectrum that are used on a secondary basis and are classified as unlicensed. There are an uncountable number of Wi-Fi access points around the United States and around the world. Many of these are providing less coverage than when they were put in and perhaps slower data speeds. Because there is no coordination and no license is required, more and more access points are installed. As the Wi-Fi systems grow they can and do interfere with each other. The standard “fix” for this appears to be to add more access points to gain back the coverage and/or speed that was there before. I am not suggesting that this spectrum be turned into licensed spectrum, but it is important to understand the differences between licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
Again, radio spectrum is a finite resource. Those involved with radio engineering are finding new ways to better use the spectrum but no matter how efficient our use becomes, it seems that the demand for spectrum outstrips the gains being made. Without an organization with both legal and technical capabilities, the use of our spectrum would not provide us with all of the different types of access we are accustomed to: radio, TV, broadband, satellite TV, and everything else we take for granted that uses radio waves and a portion of the spectrum.
If the FCC really needs to be redefined, those who take on that task need to understand that beneath the public meetings, commissioners, and attorneys there is an entire other organization dedicated to ensuring that our spectrum remains viable for all who want and need it and that it remains as free of interference as possible. Without this type of oversite of our spectrum, many of the things we take for granted would not be possible and our economy would take a deep dive.
Andrew M. Seybold