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A new regime of radio regulation


Declan recently wrote an article about abolishing the FCC and selling off spectrum to private owners. It's an old idea, in fact too old, it was out of date even when the book he cites was published.

For starters, there is UWB -- ultrawideband technology that transmits on all frequences at once because it uses what would be viewed as noise pulses, rather than a band at all. The developers of the technology, when they first started telling the FCC about it, remarked that until they were told about it, the FCC would not have been able to detect that it was even _there_, let alone regulate it. They had to tell them it existed.

Owned spectrum would pretty much forbid UWB -- and any other future innovations that were similar.

Other new technologies eliminate interference in other ways, but having dynamic transmitter-receiver relationships that limit power and take advantage of the fact that radio waves don't actually interfere when they cross one another except at the receiving antenna unable to deal with the problem.

Selling off spectrum as a permanent property right forever carves the concept of "spectrum" into law, and that's simply a silly thing to do, knowing what we do now, and knowing what we might be capable of in the future.

Instead, how about a much simpler rule.

You should not broadcast in a way that interferes with other broadcasters.

or simply:

Though shalt not hog bandwidth.

With the following interesting interpretation. It doesn't matter who was there first. Rather, it is the duty of any transmitter to regularly take steps to avoid interfering with both those already doing radio in the area and those who might come along in the future.If two technologies interfered, they would go to communications court. Communications court would push them to resolve the issue, and would make a judgement of who was doing the best job of not interfering. The one doing the bad job would be given some time limit to clean up their act. (We might lengthen that time based on how long they have been doing it, and how many people are using it.)

For example, let's say big old TV station is broadcasting with several megawatts of traditional FM based analog TV on channel 12. Today, if I try to use that spectrum in a new and more efficient way, they can get the FCC to shut me down.

I reverse that. If I come along and start transmitting in a way that is smarter, and less likely to cause interference, then _they_ are the ones interfering with me, not the other way around.

Thus we would go to commuications court. Now, if I could easily move what I am doing to another band or take some other easy step to avoid interfering with their system, then the court might tell me to do so. But if not, the court should tell the TV station to stop hogging spectrum. It would give it some time to work things out. Decisions could be based on how inefficient their use is, and how many people are currently using it and would be affected by the change. So yes, we could take into consideration the disruptive effect of declaring an old technology to be a hog, but only for so long.

Today, we might ask the TV station how many people get its programming over the air anyway -- that number might be small.

How is this different from the FCC? Well, it's a different structure but the big difference is that by default you can broadcast and only after the fact are problems fixed. The FCC makes you ask permission first, and usually says no.

For example, there is a new proposed rule (that the FCC will probably approve) that will allow new radios to use the existing TV bands if they include equipment to avoid any band that has an active channel on it.

These new radios can't possibly interfere with the existing TV stations, they switch off any band where a TV station exists, and do it as well if a new TV station gets created. These new radios actively avoid interfering with others and get the job done.

Today, they must apply to the FCC and even though the idea is a brilliant no-brainer, take years to get approved, facing the opposition of the TV stations who feel "their" spectrum is being taken away.

The alternate regime would bless any new technology that takes these active steps not to interfere, without asking for permission first.

Yes, it might mean increased capital costs, as older technologies grow obsolete faster. Isn't that good in our new, modern regime of fast tech development?

The one counter I see to this is the suggestion that it will be hard to get money to invest in a technology if, fairly soon, it might be knocked off the airwaves as a "bandwidth hog" in the face of something better.

Now, knocking the bandwidth hogs off the air in favour of better technology sounds like a good idea, but I'm open to concepts that might be applied to give people more faith in the lifetime of a technology they want to invest in. (And that means both investors and people buying a radio device they hope to use for a long time.) I think a balance can be struck.

Though in some fields, like cell phones, we seem happy to replace our phones quite frequently, and with new technologies within them.

We already want to replace our radio devices every few years anyway. Why not make a regulatory regime that expect this rather than fights it?

And I won't pretend that making the decision about "who is better" won't often be hard. Is one CDMA better than another? But there are clear cases where the decision is trivial, but still takes ages in the existing regime.

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