Powell Addresses Spectrum Policy

October 30, 2002. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell gave a speech titled "Broadband Migration III: New Directions in Wireless Policy". He spoke to the Silicon Flatirons Telecommunications Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Powell described the speech as "my thoughts about the next generation of spectrum policy".

Powell (at right) stated that consumers "deserve a new spectrum policy paradigm that is rooted in modern day technologies and markets. We are living in a world where demand for spectrum is driven by an explosion of wireless technology and the ever increasing popularity of wireless services."

"Nevertheless," he continued, "we are still living under a spectrum ``management创 regime that is 90 years old. It needs a hard look, and in my opinion, a new direction. Historically, I believe there have been four core assumptions underlying spectrum policy: (1) unregulated radio interference will lead to chaos; (2) spectrum is scarce; (3) government command and control of the scarce spectrum resource is the only way chaos can be avoided; and (4) the public interest centers on government choosing the highest and best use of the spectrum."

"Today抯 environment has strained these assumptions to the breaking point. Modern technology has fundamentally changed the nature and extent of spectrum use. So the real question is, how do we fundamentally alter our spectrum policy to adapt to this reality? The good news is that while the proliferation of technology strains the old paradigm, it is also technology that will ultimately free spectrum from its former shackles", said Powell.

Interference. Powell stated that "I believe the Commission should continuously examine whether there are market or technological solutions that can -- in the long run -- replace or supplement pure regulatory solutions to interference."

"Due to the complexity of interference issues and the RF environment, interference protection solutions may be largely technology driven." For example, he stated that "interference is not solely ``caused创 by transmitters, which many seem to assume -- and on which our regulations are almost exclusively based. Instead, interference is often more a product of receivers; that is receivers are too dumb or too sensitive or too cheap to filter out unwanted signals. Yet, our decades old rules have generally ignored receivers."

He recommended that "The time has come to consider an entirely new paradigm for interference protection. A more forward looking approach requires that there be a clear quantitative application of what is acceptable interference for both license holders and the devices that can cause interference. Transmitters would be required to ensure that the interference level -- or ``interference temperature创 -- is not exceeded. Receivers would be required to tolerate an interference level."

Scarcity. Powell stated that "Much of the Commission's spectrum policy was driven by the assumption of acute spectral scarcity -- the assumption that there is never enough for those who want it. Under this view, spectrum is so scarce that government rather than market forces must determine who gets to use the spectrum and for what. The spectrum scarcity argument shaped the Supreme Court's Red Lion decision, which gave the Commission broad discretion to regulate broadcast media on the premise that spectrum is a unique and scarce resource." See, Red Lion v. FCC, 395 U.S. 367 (1969).

Powell said that "the presumptions of Red Lion and similar broadcasting regulation based on scarcity have been called into doubt by the proliferation of media sources", and that "we question the continued utility of the pervasive scarcity assumption for spectrum based services". He added that recent studies by the FCC's Enforcement Bureau have shown that " most of spectrum is not in use most of the time".

He added that "innovative technologies like software defined radio and adaptive transmitters can bring additional spectrum into the pool of spectrum available for use. Scarcity will not be replaced by abundance; there will still be places and times when services are spectrum constrained. However, scarcity need no longer be the lodestar by which we guide the spectrum ship of state."

Powell offered this recommendation. There "is a substantial amount of ``white space创 out there that is not being used by anybody. ... One way the Commission can take advantage of this white space is by facilitating access in the time dimension."

Government Command and Control. Powell said that "government spectrum policy continues to be constrained by allocation and licensing systems from a bygone era".

He explained that "In the last twenty years, two alternative models to command and control have developed, and both have flexibility at their core. First, the ``exclusive use创 or quasi property rights model, which provides exclusive, licensed rights to flexible use frequencies, subject only to limitations on harmful interference. These rights are freely transferable. Second, the ``commons创 or ``open access创 model, which allows users to share frequencies on an unlicensed basis, with usage rights that are governed by technical standards but with no right to protection from interference. The Commission has employed both models with significant success."

Powell concluded that "we will undoubtedly use both models as we move forward".

He also recommended that "license holders should be granted the maximum flexibility to use -- or allow others to use -- the spectrum, within technical constraints, to provide any services demanded by the public. With this flexibility, service providers can be expected to move spectrum quickly to its highest and best use." However, he added the caveat, "Such flexibility should not come at the cost of clearly defined rules."

Public Interest Standard. Powell also discussed the meaning of the phrase "public interest, convenience or necessity". He said that "the public interest must reflect the realities of the marketplace and current spectrum use. Today, I would suggest that full and complete consumer choice of wireless devices and services is the very meaning of the public interest. Certainly government telling consumers what types of services and devices they should have or own is not my view of the public's interest." He also said that public interest goals include "national defense, public safety, and critical infrastructure".