Industry wary of spectrum reform

The government often is accused of being slow to adapt to new situations, but the self-interests of industry cannot be underestimated in explaining the slower progress toward and adoption of new spectrum policies and technologies, panelists said Friday at a New America Foundation forum.

Current policy assigns certain bands of spectrum to specific types of devices. But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on technology that would allow devices to coexist within the airwaves, hopping from one band to another to make way for other users, said Preston Marshall, the program manager of DARPA's Next-Generation Communications Program, which is called XG.

Commercial spectrum users often complain that all of the good "beachfront property" within the airwaves is reserved for services that use it inefficiently, such as television broadcasting. There is "a ton of open spectrum out there that can be used" if those restrictions are lifted, said Mark McHenry, the president of Shared Spectrum.

McHenry's company recently studied the amount of spectrum used in downtown Washington, D.C., and found that depending on how you calculate it, only an average of 20 percent to 38 percent of the spectrum for that area is in use-much of it in the band used by broadcasters.

That opens an opportunity for projects like DARPA's XG and experiments with software-defined radios and other smart technologies that are designed to make better use of the spectrum.

To do that, users need a set of rules on how to behave once these technologies become viable commercially, so Kalle Kontson, a member of the FCC's technology advisory committee, helped craft a "bill of rights" on spectrum use.

The document stipulates that "intelligent" wireless devices may access any available spectrum, but each device "must be ordained to be mentally competent to detect if it is interfering with someone else trying to use the spectrum," Kontson said. The bill of rights also says that spectrum users have the right not to face interference, "but you can't be unduly sensitive," he said.

The FCC embraced many of the concepts in a report issued late last year that recommends how to reform spectrum policy. The agency favors minimal regulation and flexible spectrum use. "We are not going to pick technology," said Ed Thomas, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, but "we are going to enable a playing field."

"It wasn't too long ago that the FCC would have looked at Preston and Kalle and said at best they were drinking and at worst they were agents of the devil," Homas, said after the comments by Marshall and Kontson.

Now the agency has embraced the ideas they raised, Thomas said, but the industry has reservations. While industry officials have embraced the concepts in the report fully, Thomas noted that they think the ideas are "great, but try it in the other guy's band" of spectrum.