Tales of The Sausage Factory: Unlicensed Spectrum Access II

O.K., so what’s at stake this year and how can you participate? Read below on how to help get more spectrum available for unlicensed access, help boost available power, exercise your democratic rights with your web browser, and educate the FCC and your Congresscritter.

Or you can go back to being a cynical consumer moo cow who thinks bitching and moaning about how stupid government is relieves you of your responsibilities. (Think I have an opinion?)

The FCC has a number of proceedings that have the potential to seriously alter unlicensed spectrum access. Some of these proceedings are just more of the same but better: make more spectrum available under existing rules; increase available power given certain safeguards. But two proceedings, the cognative radio proceeding and the interference temperature proceeding, have the potential to fundamentally alter how the FCC addresses spectrum management.

The link in each title goes to a PDF version of the FCc’s official notice. These documents are pretty big, and are available in word at the FCC’s website, http://www.fcc.gov. I also recommend the Washington Internet Project as a good non-partisan resource for all things regulatory that effect the Internet.

The MDS/ITFS PROCEEDING (or More Spectrum Please)

Status: Comment and reply comment deadline passed, but the proceeding is still open so you can still file comments.

This NPRM goes by the rather lengthy name “Amendment of Parts 1, 21, 73, 74 and 101 of the Commission’s Rules to Facilitate the Provision of Fixed and Mobile Broadband Access, Educational and Other Advanced Services in the 2150-2162 and 2500-2690 MHz Bands.” It’s Docket Number is WT 03-66. This information will be important later. The NPRM discusses a proposal by certainly licensees to restructure the Multipoint Distribution Service (MDS) and Instructional Fixed Television Service (ITFS).

While this sounds extremely boring and technical – and in many ways is – the essence of the NPRM is a question: What do we do with a huge band of spectrum covering from 2500 MHz to 2690 MHz. Those familiar with spectrum will recognize this as prime spectrum with excellent propagation characteristics. Furthermore, importantly for unlicensed access aficionados, it sits practically adjacent to one of the existing unlicensed bands (2400 MHz). At the moment, this spectrum is parceled into exclusive licenses that are required to offer fixed point-to-point two way communication on either a commercial basis (MDS service) or non-commercial educational basis (ITFS).

Under the current rules, none of the licensees can really exploit the potential of the band. The original rules for the service date back to the 1970s, and the efforts by the FCC to fix these rules over the years to make the spectrum productive have created a confusing patchwork of license rights.

So the FCC wants to reorganize the band to make better use of the spectrum. The current MDS and ITFS licensees have proposed a restructuring plan which would, unsurprisingly, benefit the existing licensees. The existing licensees would enjoy total flexibility and would be allowed to reorganize themselves to offer mobile as well as fixed services.

To its credit, the FCC has asked whether others could benefit from this reorganization. Specifically, the FCC has proposed creating a band dedicated exclusively to unlicensed use. NPRM Par. 79-81. The FCC also proposed extending the existing unlicensed rules (also known as “Part 15” rules, for their location in the FCC’s rules) to include the 2500-2690 range. Par. 143-148.

The effect of either proposal on unlicensed access would be enormously beneficial. Even if the FCC merely extended the Part 15 rules, it would help overcome many congestion issues and help avoid interference with other devices. Creating a significant band devoted exclusively for unlicensed without the fear of interfering with a licensed “primary” service would open the door to a whole new range of products and services.

My good buddies at New America Foundation and I drafted comments and reply comments proposing that the FCC either set aside 90 MHz of the 190 MHz being reformed for unlicensed on an exclusive basis (i.e., no licensed services, but anyone can play on an equal footing) or, in the alternative, the FCC should open up the band to unlicensed use as an underlay similar to what it has done either at 2.4 GHz or at 5.3 GHz or 5.8 GHz.

We also said a lot of stuff about why property is bad and the public interest is good. You can read our comments and replies either at MAP’s website or NAF’s.

As you can imagine, these comments made us enormously popular with the licensees and their equipment manufacturers. Their arguments on reply conisted (in my own unbiased opinion) of “These guys already have tons of unlicensed spectrum, they don’t need anymore, they can’t show we’ll be safe, and they have no business here. Besides, no one else in the record supports this proposal, so ignore them.”

Now, we had a large number of co-signers, including Consumer Federation of America (which represents about 50 million people through its affiliated organizations) a bunch fo WISPs and community access folks, and some other public interest groups, so I like to think this counts for something. But, to help build the record, we’ve been asking people to send comments to the FCC telling them that we need more spectrum allocated for unlicensed. (You don’t have to support our other stuff to say you like more unlicensed spectrum and why, but feel free).

If you want to post a comment to the FCC on this subject, read the style guide below first, then click here.

Modification of Part 2 and Part 15 (More Power Please)

STATUS: Comment and reply comment deadlines have passed, but the proceeding is still open so you can file comments if you want.

This proceeding is very highly technical but can have significant impact on available power within the existing bands. The Commission is proposing to allow increased power to phased array antennas and to other kind of antennas that minimize the likelihood of interference. They also propose harmonizing the 2.4 certification testing rules with the 5.3 & 5.8 bands (all equipment for unlicensed access is certified by the FCC). The downsides are that the FCC is also looking at some mandatory standards for antenna connectors, network installers, and operating protocols to prevent people from tinkering with the more powerful equipment.

I have not yet had time to write comments yet, but I am hoping to soon. My take at the moment is that while some of the ideas about managing use to be more efficient are good aspirational goals, it would be a terrible idea if the FCC ossified certain standards as rules. And tinkering in the field is terribly important to the evolution of the technology. We would never have found the Pringles Can antenna if the FCC proposed rules were in effect. OTOH, in fairness, you can still tinker at the lower power for proof of concept and then move it up to higher power when it can pass FCC certification.

Interference Temprature (PARADIGM BUSTER! “I can use this spectrum without interfering with the licensee, so let me!”)

STATUS: Comments Due April 5, Reply Comments Due May 5.

The Interference Temperature NOI is one of the major paradigm busters. It proposes a new metric for measuring interference potential called, amazingly enough, interference temperature. The theory is that you always have a certain amount of background noise, and a licensed service is usually designed to have a certain amount of robustness.

So instead of totally banning any other RF activtity from a band to ensure that the licensed serivce is adeqautely protected, use some metrics to determine what activity could otherwise be going on and have rules to permit that activity. The “interference temperature” is the level of RF “noise.” You can check the “baseline” level when no deliberate emissions are occuring, and the level at which interference occurs. You can then allow activity in between the two levels.

This goes a long way toward eliminating the idea of licensing as exclusivity and promoting the idea of licensing as a form of guaranteed QoS. After all, if you are providing the service, why should you care what else happens (other than your desire to collect rents on it or potential competition). The NPRM proposes to test the concept in four bands that use high-power point-to-point services, on the theory that this kind of traffic is least likely to suffer interference from an increase in the general background “noise” level.

COGNITIVE RADIO (PARADIGM BUSTER! “I’m so smart I can transmit anytime”)

STATUS: Comments due May 3, replies Due June 1.

Cognitive radio is another paradigm buster because it proposes allowing any transmitter smart enough to transmit without interfering to do so. The proposal represents another shift away from property rights of exclusion to viewing licensing as a guarantee of a particular Quality of Service. Instead of “you get exclusive use of these bands at this power in this geographic area,” it becomes “you get an assurance that no one will interfere with you.” This NPRM raises a number of questions regarding enforcement, and whether there really is a need for some sort of“trusted computing” system to ensure that devices don’t interfere with licensed services. This is particularly troubling because any kind of centralized command and control opensd the door for furture use for other purposes, e.g., intellectual property police.

Anyone can participate in any of these proceedings. I attach a very generic style guide below for those interested.

Stay tuned . . . .


A Style Guide For Filing Comments With The FCC

Be polite- The staff at the FCC are real people with human feelings. They do not appreciate hearing that they are morons or losers or corrupt servants of special interests. If you abuse them, they will disregard your comments. That’s just human nature.

Explain yourself- Many of the people who will read your comments are not engineers or are engineers unfamiliar with the specific issues you describe. If you assume an audience generally familiar with the issues but with no technical training, you will probably hit the right level. At the same time, do include complex technical or economic information where you have to. This is important in building the record. If you have lengthy technical comments, try having a plain English summary at the beginning followed by technical comments. Make sure you explain all acronyms.

Be personal- The FCC needs to hear about real world experiences in the field. Even if you are just a general supporter of unlicensed access services such as wi-fi, try to make the comments personal. In particular, if you are a business, discuss the economic impact of unlicensed access and how you would benefit from expanding unlicensed access.

To see examples of good comments in the MDS/ITFS proceeding (as an example) click here, here, here, or here.

While there is no page limit (some filings are hundreds of pages long), try to stick to essentials. A shorter document will be given preferential treatment by staffers than a longer one that says the same thing. This is simply human nature.

How To File Comments

The FCC will accept written comments in Word, WordPerfect, or PDF format. You can also type in short comments directly to the FCC on its comments webpage at:

http://gullfoss2.fcc.gov/prod/ecfs/upload_v2.cgi. In other words, anyone with Internet access can file a comment just by going to the FCC’s webpage and typing in the window provided (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

If you write comments, you should include at the top the name of the proceeding and the Docket No. You must also include in the written comments the date of filing, your name, and an address where you can be reached. You do not need to be a lawyer, or even a U.S. citizen, to write or file comments before the FCC.

The FCC’s webpage is relatively self-explanatory about what information is required and how to attach any files. At the end of the process, you will receive a confirmation from the FCC that your comments were filed. You may wish to print this out and save it for your files.

You may view other comments in this proceeding by using the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) search function available at:


How To Stay Involved

NAF and MAP will continue to update their websites with new information. The NAF website is http://www.spectrumpolicy.org. The MAP website is http://www.mediaaccess.org. In addition, the Washington Internet Project (http://www.cybertelecom.org) is a good resource for FCC proceedings that relate to unlicensed access.


  1. Harold,

    Thanks again.

    I will contact my representatives today.

Comments are closed