Are FCC radio spectrum policies obsolete?

In my previous blog on "Getting beyond the WiMAX hype", I tried to put WiMAX in to some proper perspective of what it can and cannot do.  From some of the responses that I've gotten, it appears that my WiMAX blog has thrown some cold water on the dream of running a private long range wireless LANs with WiMAX.

In my previous blog on "Getting beyond the WiMAX hype", I tried to put WiMAX in to some proper perspective of what it can and cannot do.  From some of the responses that I've gotten, it appears that my WiMAX blog has thrown some cold water on the dream of running a private long range wireless LANs with WiMAX.  Our own Dana Blankenhorn posted this follow-up piece "Is open source communication possible?" which raised some interesting questions on the need for a licensed radio spectrum and the possibility of an "open sourced" unlicensed implementation of a WiMAX metropolitan wireless network connected to the Internet.  While I may not entirely agree with Dana's free-for-all spectrum stance, his piece makes some excellent points and has forced me to rethink the role of the FCC and the way that the spectrum is regulated.

While I still believe that the radio waves are a limited resource that should be used wisely in a regulated environment, it would seem that the FCC has gone way overboard and monopolized more than 99% of all the available radio spectrum to be licensed or auctioned.  Out of all the available radio spectrum in the 3 kilohertz to 300,000,000 kilohertz range, the public is only free to broadcast (license free) on some extremely narrow slices of spectrum at extremely low power levels.  The unlicensed spectrum is so narrow that it almost manufactures scarcity or at least magnifies it by many orders of magnitude.  Even though I recognize the value of a regulated radio spectrum, surely the public is entitled to more than 1% of the radio spectrum.  In the radio band that WiMAX will operate in the 2-11 GHz and 10-66 GHz range, surely the public should be allowed to use just 1 of those GHz in each band rather than just a few hundred MHz.

The whole reason the FCC was created in 1927 on the principle of facilitating non-interference in the relatively new radio broadcast medium.  In the old analog world of broadcasting, any overlap in frequency would either make a signal unbearable or severely degraded and the FCC was forced to enforce a rigid non-overlapping spectrum.  Today's digital radio communications that implement spectrum hopping technology, smart antennas that electronically focus radio waves toward their intended targets, and intelligent software like AutoCell that can dynamically negotiate channels and power levels between different products can deal with and avoid interference like never before.  The worst that can happen is degradation in data throughput where a certain amount is tolerable.

Consider the following examples of unlicensed radio bands:

  • 902-928 MHz
  • 2400-2483 MHz
  • 5150-5350 MHz
  • 5470-5725 MHz

Computers in the last couple of years using the 802.11, 802.11b, 802.11a, and then the 802.11g standard operates exclusively in these narrow frequencies.  But in spite of its pathetic slice of the radio spectrum with stingy power levels and the fact that it has to share the same frequencies with spectrum hogging unregulated analog devices, 802.11 probably represents one of the most creative uses of the wireless spectrum ever.  The sheer amount of data flowing over this network dwarfs the data flowing over the other wasteful licensed spectrums that carry legacy analog signals.  What if the FCC had actually given Wi-Fi some real resources in the form of more spectrum and higher power limits, one could only imagine what could be achieved then.  Considering that hospitals have their own radio bands assigned to them by the FCC, guess where they're turning to for wireless VoIP?  They're turning to the congested 2.4 GHz band because that is where all the innovation is.

The FCC currently operates under a one-size-fits-all policy when dealing with unlicensed radio spectrum.  Unfortunately, optimum power levels that minimize interference for urban areas are totally inappropriate for rural areas that are sparsely populated area and in desperate need of better communications technology.  We often hear of these small rural towns where multiple families are forced to share a party line for their phone service and the all too complex Telco regulations that are suppose to subsidize and alleviate this.  Since WiMAX radios are simply designed to handle a wider range of spectrum from 2 to 66 GHz, a high powered Wi-Fi tower could deliver the same range using the same power levels to existing Wi-Fi hardware.

What if these rural areas had the ability to run a massive Wi-Fi hotspot in the 100 Watt range with WME enabled running on channel 14 (2.48 GHz) that covered the entire town?  No fiber based Internet backhaul?  No problem, just use a WiMAX radio and aim some high-powered directional antennas at the nearest town and you have an instant 70 mbps backbone that is enough to carry voice and Internet for the whole town.  Want a local Telco in the middle of nowhere?  No problem, just look up Asterisk.  Then what if a $100 Wi-Fi bridge/router/ATA (Analog Telephony Adapter for VoIP) was available to each family so that they can have their own telephone number and Internet access?  I would suspect that most of these rural homes would jump on it in a heart beat just to get their own phone number and the Internet access would just be icing on the cake.  Just imagine what this technology could do in the developing world where no wired infrastructure exists.

It would seem that more technology and less regulation is the answer to our problems and not these antiquated spectrum regulations that were forged in the beginning of the last century designed for spectrum hogging analog radio technology.  The FCC should seriously rethink their role in the new digital age and allow the private sector the freedom to innovate.

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