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Advocating for More Unlicensed Spectrum Allocations

Kenneth R. Carter

Written by:
January 4th, 2019

Look at those old school "rabbit ears" soaking up that sweet, sweet electromagnetic radiation on fixed frequencies

Look at these old school TV “rabbit ears” soaking up that sweet, sweet electromagnetic radiation from fixed frequencies as defined by radio spectrum policy of the early 20th Century.

Television and Fixed Electromagnetic Spectrum

Since the early days of Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin, television has been closely tied with the radio carrier waves used to deliver a video signal into people’s homes. Starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a transition to using coaxial cable to deliver such signals began. The transition accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s. Fast forward to the present day, and the majority of all television signals are in the payload of information packets on the public internet or networks which in some way resemble that network in architecture.

Despite this transition to wired networks, radio carrier waves, and the corresponding radio spectrum policy, are growing in importance in the political economy. This is because these waves are used to give us mobility – television on our cell phones. They are also used to provide connectivity within the home. Our TV sets are now linked to the internet and a myriad of other local devices by such technologies as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Radio Spectrum Policy

I have spent a good portion of my professional career working in and around the political economy of radio spectrum and have several academic publications on the subject. I’ve read dozens of others. Nearly all academic publications regarding radio spectrum policy begin with a statement akin to: radio spectrum is a scarce natural resource. Hogwash. It’s a totally false assertion. If spectrum were a natural resource, we could harvest it from the fields, fish it from the seas, or mine it from the earth. To be clear, electromagnetic radiation is a physical phenomenon manifesting itself in certain natural occurrences such as nuclear decay, chemical reactions, and electron flows such as lightning. Radio spectrum, however, is entirely man-made. Spectrum is a legal and engineering construct to control for an immutable fundamental physical property. When multiple electromagnetic waves, used as carrier waves to transmit information are incident in time, harmonic in frequency, and alight on the same reception antenna, they degrade one another’s ability to transmit information.

So, for over a century, policy makers have used the spectrum construct and licenses to access it in order to assign radio spectrum uses to reduce competing and interfering uses. This approach seeks to reduce the deleterious effect on information transmission. During this time, this approach was an effective means of mitigating the so-called “tragedy of the commons.” However, in the last four decades technological advances have offered increasing immunity to such interference, reducing the need for a licensing regime. Over the past two decades, an increasing body of academic literature advocates that licensing has become overly restrictive decreasing innovation, spectrum use, and overall economic welfare. The literature then argues for more flexible licensing regimes as well as increased reliance on unlicensed regimes.

Chart of economic value of unlicensed radio spectrum

Source: Raul Katz; Telecom Advisory Services LLC [PDF]

The Presumption of Unlicensed

With increasing velocity since the FCC’s 1985 omnibus review of its Part 15 rules, the use of unlicensed networks has continued to proliferate. According to Cisco, 62% of the traffic originating from mobile devices, comes from unlicensed wireless access points as opposed to traditionally licensed networks. For bandwidth-intensive uses like video streaming, that number may be more like 75%. These statistics got me to thinking, if conservatively half of mobile broadband traffic originates on unlicensed networks, shouldn’t half (approximately) of all wireless allocations also be unlicensed?

“The Wi-Fi speed advantage resulted in a GDP contribution of $7.703 billion.”

Raul Katz, a 2017 Assessment of the Current & Future Economic Value of Unlicensed Spectrum in the United States (April 2018 PDF)

I don’t know for sure, but it sure seems like an interesting problem to try and solve. So, I postulated a new approach to radio spectrum allocation: the Presumption of Unlicensed. I submitted the idea to the 46th annual telecommunication and policy research conference in Washington, DC. The abstract was accepted to the conference.

The Presumption of Unlicensed proposal calls for a new mechanism to transform the current means of spectrum allocation and is comprised of four actionable recommendations:

  1. All new spectrum allocations should be presumptively assigned on an unlicensed basis.
  2. This presumption may be rebutted by a showing that a licensed assignment is required (e.g., high powered, military, or public safety uses).
  3. The licensed regime chosen must be shown to be the least restrictive (e.g., non-exclusive).
  4. For any license renewed subject to an expectation of renewal, the renewed license shall have no expectation of renewal.

In this way, within a “generation” of spectrum licenses, all new allocations or reallocations will be unlicensed, have an unlicensed underlay, or will have at least had a strong showing of the need for a licensed regime.

Big Ideas

What does this have to do with Bitmovin’s business? Nothing directly. However, any policy which promotes the ubiquity and availability of the internet is a benefit to our customers and indirectly to us. Yet, that only tells part of the story. It is important to Bitmovin to support this kind of research, because that’s who we are. We are a collection of academics, practitioners, dreamers, and doers who are unsatisfied with the status quo and love a really hard problem with real world consequences. We are curious about public policy, the environment in which we operate, and the bigger picture.

If you are a dreamer and a doer, we hope that we’ll see your resume in 2019. We’re hiring.

Oh and one last thing, the Presumption of Unlicensed proposal was awarded first prize at the conference.

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