Radio technology has advanced greatly in the last several years, and will advance more. When the FCC opened up the small “useless” band where microwave ovens operate to unlicenced use, it generated the greatest period of innovation in the history of radio. As my friend David Reed often points out, radio waves don’t interfere with one another out in the ether. Interference only happens at a receiver, usually due to bad design. I’m going to steal several of David’s ideas here and agree with him that a powerful agency founded on the idea that we absolutely must prevent interference is a bad idea.
My overly simple summary of a replacement regime is just this, “Don’t be selfish.” More broadly, this means, “don’t use more spectrum than you need,” both at the transmitting and receiving end. I think we could replace the FCC with a court that adjudicates problems of alleged interference. This special court would decide which party was being more selfish, and tell them to mend their ways. Unlike past regimes, the part 15 lesson suggests that sometimes it is the receiver who is being more spectrum selfish.
Here are some examples of using more spectrum than you need:
- Using radio when you could have readily used wires, particularly the internet. This includes mixed mode operations where you need radio at the endpoints, but could have used it just to reach wired nodes that did the long haul over wires.
- Using any more power than you need to reliably reach your receiver. Endpoints should talk back if they can, over wires or radio, so you know how much power you need to reach them.
- Using an omni antenna when you could have used a directional one.
- Using the wrong band — for example using a band that bounces and goes long distance when you had only short-distance, line of sight needs.
- Using old technology — for example not frequency hopping to share spectrum when you could have.
- Not being dynamic — if two transmitters who can’t otherwise avoid interfering exist, they should figure out how one of them will fairly switch to a different frequency (if hopping isn’t enough.)
As noted, some of these rules apply to the receiver, not just the transmitter. If a receiver uses an omni antenna when they could be directional, they will lose a claim of interference unless the transmitter is also being very selfish. If a receiver isn’t smart enough to frequency hop, or tell its transmitter what band or power to use, it could lose.
Since some noise is expected not just from smart transmitters, but from the real world and its ancient devices (microwave ovens included) receivers should be expected to tolerate a little interference. If they’re hypersensitive to interference and don’t have a good reason for it, it’s their fault, not necessarily the source’s.
The truth is, if you follow these rules there is an absolute ton of spectrum out there. There’s no shortage at all. The shortage is created because the FCC allocates wide swaths of spectrum to people who barely use it, use it badly and have no incentive to improve. With no spectrum allocation the capacity of the ether is immense, especially as we put in more and more wires for the long hauls. The more wires do the long haul, the more we do our radio short range where we can. Without powerful transmitters blasting at you, each tiny cell of spectrum has terabits of capacity for local traffic, including local traffic to wires that will send it to another tiny cell with terabits. If only the people who truly need to go long distances to locations that can’t be wired, their needs are small.
In the extreme, consider free-space-optics, with infrared lasers. Strictly line of sight, short haul, but with gigabits of bandwidth per link. It’s so directional that you could have almost an arbitrary number of gigabit links flying through the air in a tiny space. And the next block could have another, independent pile of gigabit links. The shorter distance the radio links go, the more you can pack per square mile — your total capacity is immense.
One of the rules I talk about — use the latest technology — does require an arbitrary time guideline. It will be the case that some people install a network based on today’s latest technology, and a year later its obsolete and quite selfish compared to something newer. People need to manage risk, so we probably would not immediately declare this technology selfish and demand its replacement. In order to give people time to plan and write things off, they would be allowed to use now-selfish technologies of a certain age. But I don’t think that age should be more than a few years, not with the pace things are moving at.
Indeed, not preparing for the fact that technology will change is a selfish activity. If you design a technology and don’t make it easy to replace how the radios work after 5 years, that’s your bad unless you can show a compelling reason.
It’s not that there won’t be compelling reasons for certain selfish activities. Directional antennas, which need people to aim them, can cost a lot more than omnis. Sometimes “doing it cheaper” so that more people can adopt a technology can be a reason to not be a perfectly unselfish player in the spectrum cloud. That’s why a court-like body with a mandate for the eventual deprecation of older precedents may make more sense than a complex set of rules.
One case I would like to consider is emergency and military radios. There’s a big push right now to increase the special spectrum for “first responders,” and to come up with standards so that police can talk to medics and firefighters and so on. On top of that, they want mechanisms to shut down “civilian” radios to make sure the emergency users can get through.
This is totally backwards, but it has appealing soundbites — “Do you want the ambulence driver to not hear your address because everybody is on the phone during a terrorist attack?”
There is more than enough spectrum for everybody if we do it right and aren’t selfish. Enough so that everybody can be on the phone at once.
If emergency services people decided to use consumer technologies, they would gain from the vast economies of scale and huge pace of innovation that comes from mass market technology. Their radios would be compatible with everybody else’s, of course — including the civilians who often perform a major role in emergencies. The emegency responders would get radios for 1/10th the price that do ten times as much. That’s how consumer technology works. And they would not have to shut off the victims at the top of the World Trade Center having their last conversations with loved ones (or sending vital information to first responders) in order to do it. (How’s that for an emotionally charged soundbite?)
Of course, something as radical as this is not going to happen all at once. However, it can be tested by allocating more and more of the existing spectrum to this regime. That would include lots of currently unusused spectrum (talk about selfish) including all unused TV channels. (It’s possible selfish allocation of a few new TV channels could continue, with devices in that band simply knowing enough to not use any band with a licenced carrier.)
I believe that such an experiment would surpass even what the 2.4ghz experiment demonstrated, and take us on the path to the more complete deregulation.