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Saturday, September 9 • 5:12pm - 5:45pm
Not a Scarce Natural Resource: Alternatives to Spectrum-Think

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Spectrum policy is in a rut, and so is spectrum policy research. To get out, one needs to dig into the language that underlies the practice.

“Spectrum” is one of the most common words used to described the wireless ecosystem. However, the term has never had a single, clear meaning, and other concepts to describe wireless – such as radio stations or radio services – have waxed and waned. We will investigate how the terms used in wireless policy have changed from the early 20th century to the present day by examining congressional testimony and regulatory proceedings. Preliminary results suggest that early discussion focused on radio operations rather than spectrum, and spectrum – when used – denoted frequencies rather than a resource that operators used to provide radio services.

Today, spectrum is commonly said to be a scarce natural resource. Metaphors are pervasive in complex legal and regulatory issues, and shape the way stakeholders and policymakers think. We will show that the scarce natural resource analogy – while providing some insight into radio policy questions – is difficult to support, fails to adequately convey the dynamics of radio operation, and leads to radio policy increasingly focused on management concepts based on physical resources like land. When viewing spectrum this way, the regulator or operator may fail to see future conflicts, and be blindsided by harms that could have otherwise been prevented.

We will use textual analysis to examine alternative views of spectrum, and explore the applicability of these divergent perspectives in a modern understanding of spectrum. We will consider spectrum resources as frequency bands or radio operating rights, non-physical resource analogies, and radio station operation as the object of regulation.

This work proposes that assumptions about the objects of wireless policy affect regulatory oversight. The hypothesis will be tested by examining case studies such as the unexpected interference to public safety in 800 MHz when cellular operation was introduced; the shift from out-of-band emissions to adjacent band interference concerns in the GPS/LightSquared case; and interference with SiriusXM reception due to T-Mobile transmissions in other bands. For example, rules that focus on operating rights in individual bands may under-estimate intermodulation interference such as that experienced by SiriusXM receivers. Framing regulatory decisions in terms of radio operations rather than bands may have forestalled this problem.

Our preliminary conclusion is that focusing on radio station operations gives a more reliable picture of how a rights grant will affect existing users and neighboring licenses. By shifting the focus towards a view of spectrum as radio operation, regulators can craft better rules and anticipate future harms that might otherwise be missed.

avatar for Peter Tenhula

Peter Tenhula

Deputy Associate Administrator, NTIA


Saturday September 9, 2017 5:12pm - 5:45pm EDT
ASLS Hazel Hall - Room 221