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New quest for a new year
In the never-ending saga of the FCC seeking new ways to further congest the airwaves, the end of 2002 saw a Notice of Inquiry that could once again create havoc for some spectrum users. While the latest issue doesn't carry the same potential effect to radio as the creation of LPFM, it is broad enough that it could lead to similar encroachment.
Based on the work of an FCC spectrum-policy task force formed in June, Chairman Michael Powell indicated his intention to look at the wasted spectrum that broadcasters occupy. In remarks made during a visit to the University of Colorado, Powell rejected the notion that there is not enough broadcast spectrum to go around. He cited FCC tests that showed that there are many unused spectrum holes because a portion of the airwaves are used only at certain times. It is in these times of non-use that the space could be better utilized.
In the quest to reclaim this vast emptiness that exists, the FCC planned to review its own policies and move beyond its 90-year-old spectrum-management methods. Funny, did basic physics change at some point? The FCC believes that new technology can be used to build smarter receivers that can filter the interference. While there has been work done to build smarter receivers, it's not that simple.
In the same address Powell stated that one of the FCC's core missions is to prevent broadcasts from interfering with one another, and then added that this mission needs to be revised. The FCC is less interested in managing the spectrum than ever before. Now all they want to do is sell it again and again and let the buyer figure out how to make it work.
In the middle of December, the FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry seeking comments on creating new unlicensed spectrum to meet the growing demand from consumers. This comes as no surprise; after all, the FCC knows that the airwaves are already underused. It is surprising that this covers unlicensed spectrum: there will be no revenue from licensing.
Where are they looking? Not in the AM and FM bands — at least not yet — but it is an area close to our concern. The Notice seeks comments on the feasibility of allowing unlicensed devices to operate in the TV broadcast spectrum at times and in locations when spectrum is not being used. This is further complicated by the DTV transition that occupies twice as much spectrum during the transition period.
The notice also seeks comments on the feasibility of permitting unlicensed devices to operate in other bands, such as the 3.650GHz to 3.7GHz band. While this is not the radio broadcast band, it is regularly used for radio. You know it better as C-band. The notice suggests allowing unlicensed use of power levels higher than other unlicensed transmitters with only the minimal technical requirements necessary to prevent interference to licensed services.
The “minimal technical requirements” part bothers me. We already have unlicensed use in many frequency bands. It is possible for licensed use and unlicensed use to coexist peacefully. Unfortunately, if this notice proceeds to its full effect, there will be that much more hash in the same space. In my experience, unlicensed users do not understand interference issues. They won't coordinate the use of the frequency or find a less-congested area. Instead they will find ways to turn up the power.
It's not open season yet, but this does present the potential for increased terrestrial interference from a cordless phone or wireless home LAN.
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