Radio spectrum management tough topic

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  April 4, 2002 at 5:12 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 4 (UPI) -- The government will have problems trying to shoehorn competing and often incompatible uses into the available radio spectrum, economists and radio license users said at the "Spectrum Summit" Thursday.

Co-hosted by the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the meeting focused on radio frequencies between 3 kilohertz and 300 gigahertz.

The most technically valuable frequencies, below 3 gigahertz, hold more than 90 percent of all licenses. Many bands host concurrent and sometimes competing users, such as the military, cell phone users and wireless computing devices, said Dennis Roberson, chief technology officer at Motorola Inc.

"None of us want the police to be unable to come to our house ... because that spectrum was being used at that moment," Roberson said. "The larger challenge we have is to come to the place where we can reuse spectrum that lies fallow so much of the time, while also providing pre-emptive utilization of that by the most urgent users."

Telecommunications leaders at the summit, such as FCC Chairman Michael Powell, said much more coordination between users and regulators is necessary to achieve more efficient spectrum use.

Despite the meeting's lofty goals, the panel discussion among users often devolved into the all-too common "my applications are more vital than yours" statements that were partially responsible for the summit.

The participants did, however, note the importance of the FCC and NTIA finally working hand-in-hand on spectrum management. The two agencies are responsible for allocating radio frequencies to private and government users, respectively, but in the past have quarreled over each other's plans and policies.

A panel of license holders and other stakeholders brought up several challenges to rearranging the distribution of radio frequencies. John Stenbit, chief information officer for the Department of Defence, pointed out the need to account for technology's ability to move faster than regulators; agencies should remain aware of how well they can monitor advances in communications.

William Moroney, president of the United Telecom Council, said users such as power utilities tend to stick with older, less-efficient systems because of their reliability.

"I would hope (future) policies recognize there's a huge number of business users ... who, while they may be personal admirers of new technology, need to rely on proven technologies," Moroney told the gathering. "Those shouldn't be abandoned."

A separate panel of economists and industry analysts focused on the legal aspects of reassigning frequencies as some sort of valuable property. The airwaves are considered a public resource the government manages. Rudy Baca, a strategist at the Precursor Group, said the government, in following that scenario, needs to be particularly careful to avoid a repeat of the NextWave debacle.

In that situation, the FCC auctioned off wireless phone licenses and one winner, NextWave, ended up going bankrupt. The courts were called in to decide if the licenses became the company's property when it won the auction or if the FCC retained the right to revoke the licenses for nonpayment.

"It's helpful for both the license holders and the investment community to have a clearer view of what rights are being licensed and what's retained by the government," Baca said. "Auctions are a bad way to manage spectrum."

Several other analysts echoed Baca's call for more clarity in the licensing process, but were less unified on the issue of what to do with the nation's existing over-the-air, free television system.

Jeffery Eisenach, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, said that spectrum should be preserved to ensure universal access to broadcast TV.

Thomas Hazlett, senior research fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, took the opposite tack. Since people already are willing to pay for television products, the inefficient broadcast system should be replaced with better uses for that spectrum, he said.

A novel suggestion came from Michael Calabrese, director of the Public Assets Program at the New America Foundation. He suggested reallocation efforts should leave unlicsensed spectrum available for ordinary citizens to create wireless computer networks in neighborhoods or even metropolitan areas.

Such a move could mirror the early Internet in its person-to-person, unfettered communications, Calabrese said.

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