Few people realize how much the spectrum world will change on January 3, 2020. That’s the day that Julius (Julie) Knapp, the Director of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) retires. You can read tributes to Julie Knapp from Chairman Pai, Commissioner O’Reilly, Commissioner Rosenworcel, Commissioner Carr, and Commissioner Stark. I would be remiss, however, if I failed to write something myself.
Actual spectrum engineering is a highly technical task. That does not mean there is a single, right answer. to the contrary, questions about “interference” and “harmful interference” are politely referred to as “probabilistic,” because it is an effort to predict the probability of unwanted noise to signal under certain circumstances. To translate this to something understandable, it means that “will this new service or device cause harmful interference to existing services” very rarely has a clean answer. It depends on circumstances, on underlying assumptions about the equipment and use cases and dozens of other things outside of people’s control. While there are some things that can clearly cause harmful interference, proving that something could never cause harmful interference under any set of circumstances that permit meaningful operation is virtually impossible. It’s a question of whether something is likely to cause the existing service to not work right often enough that we should declare it “harmful.”
I go through all this to underscore how difficult it is being Chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology (OET). Everybody keeps expecting that this is — SCIENCE!! — and therefore engineers can just pop out the “correct” answer. But as I’ve pointed out before, it doesn’t work that way. All these “objective” facts are subject to highly subjective interpretation to try to answer a question with no one, clear right answer. To make things more interesting, reality tends to behave in ways utterly unpredictable in the lab. People trying to bring new services to market complain that nothing moves and there is no clear way to prove their service will work out fine. Incumbent users and government agencies complain the FCC is moving with wild and reckless abandon. Nobody thanks you when you approve something, and everyone blames you if things go wrong.
That Julie Knapp managed to operate in this environment so well for so long speaks to both his engineering skill and his management skills. As Chief of OET, Julie preserved OET’s reputation as a non-political office in an increasingly politicized Washington D.C. I cannot stress enough how critical this is for the FCC to manage one of its most important functions, making sure our increasingly noisy spectrum environment continues to support increasingly critical services. It requires that politicians of both parties trust that OET is doing its job fairly and capably even when the agency is run by members of the opposing political party. It requires an ability to explain things to people who have no technical background and who have come in prepared by lobbyists for one side or another to tell OET why whatever they are doing is wrong and they need to do the opposite.
Most importantly, and most invisibly, it requires a high level of diplomacy to maintain institutional relationships with other federal users. It means keeping an eye on the hundreds of labs authorized to do confirmation testing for all those electronic devices that get FCC certified as not leaking out dangerous levels of radio-frequency interference. It means being engineer enough to command respect from other engineers while still being able to communicate clearly with non-engineers.
It’s a very tough and under-appreciated job.
As someone frequently on the side of approving new technologies and wireless services, I’ve done my share of ranting and complaining about how overcautious I think the FCC can be. Likewise, I’ve bristled when I hear others complain about how “reckless” the FCC is being when we’ve spent years in testing already. But like many others, I’ve been able to ultimately trust the process because Julie has managed OET in a way that creates that kind of institutional trust and stability. The fact that Julie did his best to keep drama to a minimum and keep technical stuff boring and apolitical contributed to this success, and means that few people will appreciate just how much Julie contributed to the growth and advancement of wireless technology in the last two decades.
I understand why after 45 years of public service and about 15 years as Chief of OET Julie is ready to retire. I also anticipate that whoever succeeds hime, OET will continue to operate with the professionalism and integrity for which Julie Knapp has made it justly famous. But when Julie leaves this Friday, we will find ourselves in a very new world of spectrum testing at a time when spectrum policy seems unusually turbulent and chaotic (for reasons I will hopefully get into in another post in the near future). Starting in 2020, the spectrum policy world will change in ways that few people can understand and no one can accurately predict. which I suppose makes it a perfect analogy for interference testing generally.
Have fun in retirement Julie. We’ll miss you here in D.C.
Stay tuned . . . .