Are You a Naysayer?

Just because commercial unlicensed radio data technologies are working, it doesn't mean you can't ask questions about future viability.

Dave Molta

July 29, 2004

3 Min Read
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That's not exactly true. In reality, you could get together with yourneighbor and agree to an informal "spectrum allocation agreement." Heconfigures his system on channel 1 and you configure yours on channel11. In fact, this very type of "voluntary regulation" is just what theFCC and other regulators are hoping will happen. If it works, it's trulyliberating: Buy it; install it; run it. No red tape. And when serviceproviders get together to work out potential interference issues ontheir own, the FCC says that-a-boy, go get 'em. At last week's BroadbandAccess Network Coordination (BANC) meeting in San Francisco, FCCChairman Michael Powell made the following statement:

"Unlicensed uses and Wi-Fi have far exceeded what any one expected, andhave disproved the many naysayers. In fact, during my seven years at theFCC, I have heard many predictions -- most of what I was told was notpossible is now in commercial production. The FCC does not want to bethe arbiter of what does or does not work. Instead, we should strive tofacilitate innovation, and make sure that we do not get in the way."

Clearly, the FCC and its supporters are a little defensive about thisissue. They're frustrated when critics look at the current regulatoryenvironment and contemplate issues of scale and wonder aboutinterference. If we're really in the early days of the wireless datarevolution, how can we possibly avoid the consequences of interferenceonce the technology really catches on? Just because a system works todayin limited rollout, doesn't mean it will work tomorrow in an era of massadoption. And given the possibility of interference, can organizationswith high-availability mandates really include unlicensed radio in theirnetwork portfolio? Would an executive responsible for risk assessmentever sign off on this if presented with a balanced technical analysis?

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Defenders of the commercial unlicensed radio data market yell hooey.Just take a look at the many success stories out there that prove thetechnology's viability. In the local area, there are many examples ofwireless LANs with thousands of users. And in the wide area, serviceproviders rely on the technology for cellular back-haul and emergencyservice organizations use it for a variety of functions, includingfighting wildfires. They're right. The technology is working today,providing essential data service to people all across the country andbeyond.But just because it's working, doesn't mean you can't ask questionsabout future viability. Regulatory reform and technical innovation areneeded, and in many areas. First, more unlicensed spectrum is needed tosustain likely future demand. The FCC deserves credit for carving outmore channels at 5 GHz, but still more may be needed in the moredesirable lower frequency bands. Rule-makers also need to develop newregulations for smarter radios, including a mandate of automaticinterference detection and transmit power control. Today, even in awell-engineered micro-cell WLAN designed to meet enterprise capacity andquality-of-service requirements, one blabbering radio can causeinterference to neighboring cells. Next, engineers need to find new waysof effectively controlling interference, perhaps using moresophisticated access protocols that schedule use of the medium. Finally,formal procedures need to be implemented to mediate spectrum disputes.Voluntary regulation will only take us so far.

Like most things in life, the issue of interference and unlicensed radiois not black and white. Just because interference is possible, and evenlikely, that's no reason to argue against expansion of unlicensedwireless spectrum. Likewise, suggesting that current regulations areinadequate to facilitate widespread use for mission-criticalapplications doesn't make you a "naysayer." Somewhere in the middlewe'll find some rational solutions.

See a written transcript of Michael Powell's remarks to BANC last week

-- Dave Molta, [email protected]

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