Accommodating this surging demand will require innovative new approaches to use the finite amount of spectrum that exists. It will also require policymakers and regulators to play their part in making spectrum available.
A short history of spectrum regulation
A recent report from the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy, “Making Waves: Alternative Paths to Flexible Spectrum Use,” by Dorothy Robyn, provides an account of the history of spectrum regulation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the body responsible for regulating spectrum use, and it has been in this business for a long time.
Nearly 90 years ago, the Radio Act of 1927 gave the federal government the authority to designate specific bands of the electromagnetic spectrum for particular uses and to grant exclusive use of portions of these bands to individual users based on the criterion of serving the public interest. The original focus for this scheme was to avoid interference between AM radio stations. This “command and control” approach is still used by the FCC to regulate many uses of spectrum, including radio and TV broadcasting, satellite communications and cellphone services.
However, starting in the mid-1990s, the FCC began experimenting with alternatives to this top-down approach. In 1993, for example, Congress gave the FCC the power to introduce a market mechanism for spectrum allocation by holding auctions for licenses for non-broadcast wireless services. Since then, the FCC has held several successful spectrum auctions that have generated billions of dollars in income for the government.
The FCC also developed another approach to spectrum regulation that involves designating certain portions of the spectrum for unlicensed use. Under this approach, anyone who meets certain technical standards designed to minimize harmful interference with other users can use these spectrum bands without permission from the FCC. The growth of Wi-Fi, which is perhaps the most familiar form of unlicensed spectrum use, is a good demonstration of the success of this approach. As evolving technology has introduced new capabilities for avoiding interference, the FCC has relaxed its rules to permit more flexible use of unlicensed spectrum.
The emergence of LTE-U
Recently, wireless carriers and high-tech equipment makers have proposed a new type of service called LTE-U – an extension of the current fourth-generation wireless network standard known as Long Term Evolution (LTE) that will make use of unlicensed spectrum in the 5GHz band. A device such as a smartphone using LTE-U would remain connected to a cellular network while getting additional bandwidth from a nearby LTE-U access point. This new technology is particularly intended to provide a convenient way to expand capacity for mobile consumers in congested areas.
Wireless carriers view LTE-U as an evolutionary technology that will enhance the wireless experience for consumers and provide a platform to support a variety of new products and services as the Internet of Things takes hold.
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