WASHINGTON — More certainty about what constitutes being a good neighbor in the broadband spectrum will spur innovation and efficiency, experts told members of House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Thursday.
But when the company — or technology — that might occupy the spectrum adjacent to you in five years may not even exist yet, this makes defining boundaries particularly challenging.
“Demand for spectrum is far outpacing supply, and we need to figure out how to use the room we have as effectively as possible," said committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.
Thursday’s hearing, part of a series Walden has held that examines America’s broadband spectrum policies, focused on the role of receivers, and whether regulations could be imposed on them to facilitate more efficient spectrum use.
Physicist Pierre de Vries, a senior adjunct fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado, said it was important to set a standard “harm claim threshold" for the amount of interference allowable between neighboring spectrum users.
“This gives manufacturers and operators the information they need to figure out the best way to tolerate potentially interfering signals in adjacent bands, including by improving the performance of their receivers," he said.
Traditionally, the Federal Communications Commission has used several strategies for monitoring spectrum usage, said Ronald Repasi, deputy chief of the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology.
First, it has tried to assign similar users to the same bands, so that cellphone carriers occupy one area while television broadcasters operate in another, he said. Second, it has imposed limits on transmissions so that they don’t create interference outside their designated frequency bands. Third, it has assigned “guard bands" between adjacent users, to keep signals from creeping into and disrupting transmissions in other bandwidths.
“There is no question that, without concerted action, the demand for mobile broadband spectrum would quickly outpace the available supply," he said.
By way of analogy: If the broadband spectrum was like your FM radio dial, the FCC would tell businesses where they could set up, how powerful their signal could be and how close they could be to another station. However, if the receivers (in this example, the radios, but really for any device like a smartphone or tablet) could be improved to better distinguish between signals, then the signals could be stronger and closer together, which would create more usable space on the dial.
Where the analogy falls down is that it assumes that all users of the broadband spectrum are in the same industry, or using the same technology, which they are not.
In a real-life example, a company called LightSquared recently tried to launch a wholesale 4G wireless network in a specific band of the spectrum, only to find that its use was disrupting global positioning systems, or GPS, in a nearby part of the spectrum. When the Defense Department and other government users complained about the disruptions, the FCC pulled LightSquared’s permission to use its allocated bandwidth, and the company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Brian Markwalter, the Consumer Electronics Association’s vice president of research and standards, said that while multiple users of the same spectrum, such as cellphone carriers, have worked well together within the same industry to develop technology that allows them to operate in the same area, developers don’t typically pay attention to how another industry may plan to use a neighboring slice of bandwidth.
He encouraged the subcommittee members to let industry develop the performance benchmark for receivers rather than having them imposed by the FCC.
“Inappropriate regulations reduce flexibility for innovation in an area that is inherently vibrant," he said. “The FCC should encourage industry, through voluntary standards-setting organizations, to lead efforts to create voluntary receiver performance guidelines based on projected spectrum environments."
Walden learned Wednesday that Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, had tapped him to serve another two-year term as chairman of the Communications and Technology subcommittee.
In his remarks Thursday, Walden indicated that as subcommittee chairman, he plans to continue to focus on broadband spectrum.
“Telecommunications is the most vibrant and innovative (economic) sector in America. Spectrum is the fuel that it runs on, but there’s a limit to our supply. As our subcommittee continues to work to free up more spectrum, we are also focused on maximizing use of existing spectrum."