June 24, 2018
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Splitting up the spectrum

Who should be able to use the public airwaves? The Federal Communications Commission is reorganizing the electromagnetic spectrum — which enables television signals to reach into Americans’ homes, radio into their cars, WiFi into their coffee shops and 4G cellphone service into their pockets — and The Post’s Cecilia Kang reports that high-tech companies are doing battle with telecommunications firms over who will get which share.

Under a law Congress passed last year, the rights to use the portion of the spectrum currently devoted to UHF television broadcasting will be reclaimed and auctioned off to mobile broadband companies. That’s good. That portion of the spectrum is extremely valuable, because broadcast signals using those frequencies can easily penetrate concrete walls or bend around trees, and the country’s cellphone networks need it. These networks have revolutionized daily life, making immense quantities of information accessible to millions of Americans from practically anywhere. But as streaming video becomes more common, those networks will get increasingly creaky without more spectrum.

Reserving freed-up spectrum for individual companies willing to pay for its exclusive use will promote network reliability and private investment in new communications infrastructure, since those firms — and their customers — would have assurance that their signals won’t be crowded and won’t encounter interference.

To ensure that strong signals don’t interfere with one another, the FCC would create “guard bands” between the blocks it would license off. The FCC would then open up those guard bands for anyone to use for free, as long as they weren’t used to broadcast high-power signals. Similar arrangements in the past enabled the proliferation of baby monitors, cordless home phones, car key remotes — and WiFi signals. With slivers of spectrum designated for unlicensed use at these new frequencies, it would be much easier to provide public wireless Internet access to whole cities or rural zones, for example, or to link smart electricity meters with utilities, home appliances and each other. Myriad other innovations would no doubt be possible with new, unlicensed spectrum available to all sorts of inventors.

So, what’s the dispute? One side worries that regulators will make the guard bands too large, reserving more spectrum for unlicensed use than is necessary to prevent interference and thereby reducing what telecommunications companies could use to bolster their networks. And some even want to see the guard bands sold off. The other side pushes back that at least a handful of frequencies must be available for inventors to use freely; otherwise, high costs would deter valuable innovation.

The FCC should base the size of the guard bands on the best reckoning of engineers on how wide they must be to serve their primary technical purpose. Anyone who has browsed recently through mobile-app stores knows that lots of useful innovation happens after spectrum is sold off. It’s very reasonable, though, for some of the public airwaves to be more publicly accessible, allowing free use of the spectrum that’s left over and enabling anyone from Google to would-be inventors tinkering in their garage to design low-power devices that would take advantage of it.

The Washington Post (Feb. 19)

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