Tales of the Sausage Factory: Good FCC Order on Unlicensed Released

The FCC has now released the Order it published last week on allowing higher power outputs for “smart antennas.” A copy of the Order in word is available here, and pdf here. My extremely limited analysis below. Headline version: the FCC sidestepped some bad ideas and the order will generally improve the ability of equipment manufacturers and network providers to use unlicensed spectrum more efficiently and at slightly higher powers in existing bands. So call it a good day at the FCC.

My entirely non-technical reactions based on a quick flip through. I’d love to hear from the more technically inclined on this.

My chief concern in this order was the proposal to create a new certification for “professional installers.” There have been a number of folks in the industry bellyaching over the need to make equipment simple enough for the average consumer. They want to create a licensing or certification requirement which would show you know what you’re doing, and therefore can be trusted to play with higher power equipment.

I vigrously oppose this for a couple of reasons. Number one, unlicensed represents one of the great hopes of universal access. This is precisely because you can go into a community with cast off equipment, a CD-ROM, and set up an access point that anyone with minimal training can handle. Start requiring professional certification and this all goes to hell.

Worse, certification requirements have a long history of becoming sneaky ways by which industries maintain barriers to entry. You have to do 2000 hours of slave labor known as an apprenticeship before you can become a certified electrician or a certified plumber or a certified pharmacist. While some experience is good, who set 2000 hours? The professional organizations that set the rules.

If we start going down this route, we will very rapidly start freezing out the ability of people to deploy unlicensed networks. At best, this could be a written exam administered by the FCC, like a driver’s license. But it is not hard to imagine this very rapidly ballooning out of control into an expensive requirement that freezes out poor communities or linguistic minorities because official certification exams are in English.

The FCC made the right decision on professional installers. It decided not to go there.

The FCC continues to adhere to a unique connector requirement. Under the law, any unlicensed device sold is supposed to only work with the antenna the FCC approved. It is, in fact, a violation of FCC regs to take your ireless base station, outfit it with a “Pringles can” and transform it into a point-to-point system capable of squirting 25 miles, as recommended in the O’Rielly community networking book. The FCC asked whether it should stick to the unique connector requirement or ditch it. While a number of equipment manufacturers proposed ditching it, the FCC decided to keep it on the grounds that it does prevent random consumers from messing up systems — even if sophisticated users are getting around the rule. But the FCC did make it easier to certify equipment for lots of different antenna types, so manufacturers can make devices that come compatible with more antennas from the get go.

I am not thrilled with the unique connector requirement, which modestly impedes the ability of community networks to “roll your own” equipment combinations. But, as the Order itself observes in passing, most technically sophisticated people bypass this restriction despite the fact that doing so violates FCC rules. It is primarily to keep consumers without technical expertise from creating devices with significant intereference potential. There is some logic in this. Once equipment become broadly available, you need to have it simple enough so that the average 15 year old can’t screw it up. And the requirement does not appear to be inhibitting folks in the field.

I look at this as a safety blanket for the FCC to reassure itself it is being responsible about interference protection and not, as some licensees have accused, been going on an unlicensed “binge.” As such, it keeps the FCC from adopting more obnoxious rules to reassure incumbent licensees. I would love to hear feedback on this.

The FCC declined to impose mandatory sharing ettiquettes. Microsoft and a few others had suggested making sharing rules mandatory to prevent the roll out of “arms race” equipment like “Super G.”

I’m glad the FCC did not chose to adopt mandatory ettiquetts. My own feeling is that mandatory ettiquettes quickly evolve into centralized control and freeze technologies in place. Ominously, however, the Order says it will look with favor on mandatory ettiquettes in pending proceedings to make more spectrum available (such as the broadcast bands proceeding).

All else looks favorable. The FCC made an effort to streamline equipment requirements and make more power available so that those deploying networks can work accross multiple frequency bands more easily.

Given that comments were fairly uniform in this proceeding, I would be surprised if anyone else files a Petition for Recon either.

Stay tuned . . .

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