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Monday, March 5, 2012

Pressures on today’s Wireless Policy Framework

The current wireless policy framework is based on the technology of more than 8 decades ago and on the desire, at that time, for governmental control over communications. It has evolved to encompass a patchwork of legacy rules and more modern approaches that have been added over time. Nonetheless, there is wide acceptance that the rules are ripe for change, to better reflect the technological options available today and in the future. The current framework is under pressure today on several fronts:
  • The current framework continues to rely heavily (with a few exceptions) on service-specific allocations and assignments that are made primarily by frequency band and geographic location and does not encompass all of the spectrum management approaches possible. Allocation and assignment of services by frequency band were historically seen as the only technologically feasible way of allowing multiple wireless systems and services to coexist. Today, technology advances make it possible to use additional degrees of freedom to separate transmissions, introducing new options for allocating usage rights. In addition, new frontiers are being opened by the emergence of inexpensive, small devices that operate at 20 to 100 GHz.

  • Despite revisions aimed at ensuring greater flexibility, the current framework continues to rely significantly on centrally managed allocation and assignment, with government regulators deciding how and by whom wireless communications are to be used. Spectrum policy has become more flexible over the past several decades in such areas as permitted modulation waveforms and types of use and the adoption of less centralized models such as unlicensed bands and white space. Nonetheless, the past decade has seen widespread agreement that central management by regulators is inefficient and insufficiently flexible—an agreement that reflects the complexity of the problem and the dispersion in the economy of the information that is required to make decisions. It also reflects concerns about whether government institutions are sufficiently nimble to make efficient and timely decisions.
  • The current framework will not be able to satisfy the increasing and broadening demand for wireless communications. One source of this demand is greater use of richer media (such as video) that requires higher data rates. Another is the continued growth in Internet applications and services and the growing demand for untethered and mobile access to them. Demand for mobile access to the public telephone network has continued— the leading example of a more general shift toward mobile interpersonal communication. Together, these have resulted in rapid growth in the number of users of wireless devices and services. Increasingly, communications are between devices as well as people, notably reflected in growing interest in sensor networks, and together, these trends may overwhelm the ability of the existing framework to enable introduction of new communications services to meet demand.

  • The current framework does not fully reflect changes in how radios are built and deployed now or in how they could be built and deployed in the future in response to different regulations. Technological innovation has expande the range of potential wireless applications and services and the technical means for providing them. At the same time, it has dramatically lowered the cost of including wireless capabilities in devices. The old regime and technology placed a premium on simple, low-cost receivers and did not impose tight cost constraints on transmitters. New technology enables the deployment of many more, and more capable yet inexpensive, transceivers. Today, the population of deployed radios has shifted from one dominated by a small number of transmitters and many receivers to a population that also contains many more transceivers (e.g., every cell phone is a transmitter as well as a receiver).

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