The Battle for Wireless Radio Spectrum

We've had about a hundred years to figure out how best to regulate this invisible resource. Are we getting any better at it?

Dave Molta

July 30, 2004

2 Min Read
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Not Quite Perfect

Unfortunately, it's not always smooth sailing. Given the money at stake, some participants gamed the system by using code bidding to pass messages (don't bid on my spectrum and I won't bid on yours, for example), artificially reducing bids. The FCC fixed this problem, but there have been others.

One of the most visible was the commission's battle with NextWave Telecom, which won a $4.7 billion PCS spectrum auction in 1996 but filed for bankruptcy before paying the government. The FCC's decision to reauction the spectrum was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, prompting a settlement earlier this year.

Elsewhere, the commission's inability to free up spectrum for emerging 3G services illustrates the zero-sum equation faced by regulators. The most desirable spectrum was allocated years ago, much of it for services like broadcast video that seemed more strategic than they do today. There's no way to avoid political fallout from entrenched interests when the rules are modernized, but that's the only way to address emerging needs like competitive broadband access.

Another big problem is interference, which can't easily be prevented when the goal is to waste as little spectrum as possible. The FCC's July decision to relocate Nextel out of the 800-MHz band, where it was causing interference to police and fire communication systems, was well reasoned but drew widespread criticism. Emergency services groups resented the fact that they would need to move some of their gear, and Nextel's competitors objected to its receiving highly desirable spectrum in the 1.9-GHz range. The debate will inevitably end up in court.

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Last, and perhaps most significant, is the FCC's role in establishing policy regarding licensed versus unlicensed spectrum. The commission favors the expansion of unlicensed spectrum, and recent initiatives to more than double the amount of unlicensed spectrum in the 5-GHz range is great news for those who favor that technology's ease of implementation. But there's no effective way to resolve disputes when one unlicensed wireless system interferes with another. Recently, FCC Chairman Michael Powell applauded voluntary restrictions enacted by California service providers, but such an approach isn't viable long term.

Be wary of those who offer simple solutions to complex problems. There's no alternative to regulation. It's an issue of who writes the rules and how they're enforced--economics and politics. That reality should lead to an interesting second hundred years of radio.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]

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