Tales of the Sauasage Factory: Delay in Unlicensed in Broadcast Bands

‘Lo all. I’m back from vacation which included mud, wireless connectivity, poetry on the field of battle, and more mud. Eventually, I’ll get the mud dried out and have more to say about the real cool Community Wireless Networking summit I attended. But first, some breaking wireless news.

The FCC has granted a 90-day extension for comment in the proceeding to allow unlicensed activity in the broadcast bands. The IEEE and the broadcasters had asked for a 6-month delay. I have some rather harsh words about the IEEE and its all too usual combination of hubris and political naivette that remind me way too much of ICANN and will no doubt get me in trouble. But what the heck?

The IEEE 802.18 Committee has sadly fallen into the same trap that afflicted Jon Postel and the rest of the folks who helped create ICANN. The first problem is a belief that because you played a critical role in creating a phenomena, you own it. The IEEE, or at least, the head of the relevant committee, has a clear idea of how unlicensed access should evolve. Based on comments filed in the 3650-3700 MHz proceeding and the broadcast bands proceedings, that vision means maximizing existing technology by adding relatively high-power backhaul and backhaul in the broadcast bands. No more low power open bands that parallel the 2.4 GHz bands — IEEE deems them unnecessary and hang anyone who wants to innovate in that space (guess we can kiss mesh networks goodbye).

Second, the IEEE really believes the broadcasters that the broadcasters have suddenly had a conversion on the Road to wireless Damascus. Despite the fact the industry has fought this proposal kicking and screaming, IEEE believes it can reach a technical accomodation in 6 months on a permissible standard that will lock in IEEE’s vision of how the space should evolve.

As you might imagine, I have some problems with this. First, I think it is a big mistake to customize unlicensed spectrum access for today’s technologies. Yes, wireless networking along the 802. family of protocols is what has caught on, but ten years from now we may have a host of different uses. If the FCC had sought to maximize existing technology uses when it first created the current unlicensed access regime in 1989, we would have real powerful garage door openners and no wifi.

Trying to create a system of neatly sliced bands for low power consumer devices (2.4 GHz, 5.3 GHz, 5.8 GHz) and fixed device high power backhaul installed by certified professionals as proposed by the IEEE 802.18 Committee (see their comments in the 3650-3700 band)recreates the restrictions of the previous licensing regime. Sure, it’s a little broader and more competitive, but it basically locks in use of spectrum for particular purposes based on our vision of today’s technology. Falling into this trap in 1927 made a degree of sense, but it doesn’t today.

The existing unlicensed networks are a consequence of unleashing creative freedom of innovators. Just as “stupid networks” moved innovation out of the core of the network to the edges, thus unleasing the creative power of everyone who had access to the network, so too does “stupid spectrum” with no restrictions save those necessary to ensure operability of the network as a whole promotes innovation in spectrum services.

Sadly, I have discovered that when I, a mere lawyer, attempt to explain this to the more technically inclined, they are not in the least inclined to listen. There is in any profession (or any subgroup for that matter) a natural inclination to reject arguments that contradict our own opinions and to look for reasons to reject them. Rejection based on source of argument is the ad hominem attack in classic form, because it rejects the message based on the messenger.

In my ICANN experiences, I discovered that this form of hubris has its own flavor among certain engineers (as it has its own flavor among lawyers, doctors, or anti-intellectuals). Karl Aurbach neatly characterized the attitude as a throwback to the the 1920s and 1930s, when writers asserted that “science” would form the rational basis for a world governemnt. Hence, in “The Shape of Things To Come,” world government by an elite set of engineers known as “The United Airmen” brings utopia.

IEEE 802.18 Committee is sadly demonstrating a propensity toward this trap. Just let the engineers sort out the rules and the standards and all will be well. The rest of the world, which benfits from our 802.11 work, should rest easy and gratefully accept whatever we come up with.

That’s cool for private standards, but not public policy. Oddly enough, us morons addicted to democracy have the wacky idea that management of spectrum access is more than just a technical question. It invovles fundamental questions of citizen access and autonomy and the freedom to innovate. Let the FCC set specs to ensure non-interference, then let people loose. Don’t seek to enshrine an IEEE voluntary standard as the basis for an FCC rulemaking.

Sadly, a part of this hubris is to completely underestimate the political will of those with billions of dollars at stake. IEEE believes that MSTV (the broadcaster tech trade assocition) and the broadcasters generally have become reasonable, and that after years of screaming about how the sky will fall if the FCC allows this have finally bowed to the inevitable.

Perhaps. But I, in my non-technical cynical lawyer fashion, have a different theory. I think the broadcasters just want to delay. The broadcasters are already furiously lobbying Congress in preparation for the next Congress, so they can get legislative relief if the FCC does act (some of us still remember the way the NAB got Congress to reverse the FCC’s decision to authorize Low Power FM after the FCC concluded that service would not create harmful interference).

But more to the point, the broadcasters want to push this out until Michael Powell goes. Powell is Chariman of the FCC and the biggest supporter of unlicensed technologies of the five commissioners. If Kerry wins, Powell goes. Even if Bush wins, it is widely believed Powell will step down.

Had comments been filed on September 1, the proceeding could have been resolved on Powell’s watch (even if Kerry won, Powell would stay until the inauguration). If Comments were pushed back 6 months, as IEEE requested, then consideration of the docket would not even begin until after Powell, the biggest supporter of the docket among the Commissioners, left. From the NAB perspective, this gives hope that the entire proceeding will get quietly buried.

However, mention to the IEEE engineers that the broadcasters have this as their motivation and they will call you nasty lawyer names. After all, the engineers they deal with from the broadcaster trade associations are fellow engineers and sincerely interested in getting to the merits, as evidenced by the substance of their conversation (if not by substantive agreement).

For me, it is instructive to observe that those who supported the request for a 180 day delay were the same groups who never wanted this in the first place, while all who opposed anything more than a 30 day delay have been pushing for this proceeding for two years. But no doubt that is just a coincedence.

Again, this is just all too reminiscent of the formation of ICANN, when the DNS tech folks were convinced they could trust the intellectual property people to keep their deals and that they could screen governments out.

Well, in any event, we now have 90 days to put together better studies and better comments. And let me tell you, there is _lots_ of work to be done on this stuff.

Stay tuned …


  1. Broadcasters have it both ways, enjoying protected frequencies and being heavy users of license-free wireless microphones on unused TV channels.

    There’s a situation where unlicensed transmitters should never be used, imho. That’s when lives may be endangered. 3 or 4 years ago, when a TV station in Texas started tests with their new (FCC licensed) digital transmitter, they got a call from a local hosptial … all the wireless monitors in the cardio ward failed. It seems these wireless monitors were operating with unlicensed transmitters on an ‘unused’ UHF frequency: the one that had been assigned for that station’s digital transmitter. Oops.

  2. Harold,

    Another great post. Thanks.

    More substantive comments to follow.

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