Time to Reorganize the FCC

Wayne Rash
A few days ago I wrote a column that criticized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approving the start of operations for a satellite-based data service by a company called LightSquared. I got a response from a communications consultant, Michael Marcus, respectfully disagreeing with me. Marcus also writes a blog, and he has covered this topic. He finds fault with many of those who don't think the FCC did the right thing.

So, since Marcus is located here in the Washington, D.C., area, I gave him a call after I responded to his email. Let me say first that Dr. Marcus (he has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering-something I don't have) is a very nice guy who knows a lot about this topic. We were able to have a really interesting, very technical discussion on communications technology policy without having to explain acronyms to each other. It was like a breath of fresh air.

I can find fault with his position in two areas. First, he's an Air Force veteran, when everyone knows that true communications knowledge is found only in the Navy. Second, he doesn't completely agree with me about the FCC and its approval of the LightSquared data communications plan, which I think has the potential to interfere with GPS use. Obviously, not agreeing with me is cause for suspicion.

But we found common ground in some areas, one of which is that the FCC could be doing a better job than it is. He pointed out that the FCC can take basically forever to approve anything, to the point that any innovative technology has a greater likelihood of being rendered irrelevant than of getting approved. I think that the approval process as well as many of the other actions by the FCC are based mostly on politics, not technology.

The approval of the LightSquared data service was clearly an effort by the FCC to make the White House happy. Nobody bothered to look at the potential consequences. Other similar actions also didn't get looked at, but for a different reason-they got so bogged down by inaction that nothing got looked at.

Meanwhile, the FCC spends its time, not to mention millions of dollars and tons of credibility on worrying about whether Janet Jackson's breast was briefly seen on television. This is communications policy? Really?

Shouldn't communications policy be focused on making sure that there's a coherent plan to provide effective use of the wireless spectrum to all of those who need to use it? Shouldn't there be some means of actually getting intelligent decisions made in a timely manner? Instead, what we have is a totally political group making policy on the advancement of technology when its members know only politics, not technology. I think there's something wrong with this picture.

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Apr 14, 2011 3:04 PM MJ Marcus MJ Marcus  says:
Readers who want to see more examples of FCC delay in dealing with new technology are encouraged to read Mitchell Lazarus' personal comments in the FCC's Wireless Innovation NOI (Docket 09-157): http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020039921 http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view?id=7020039922 While I disagree with Mitch's suggested solutions, his comments highlight the problem of the status quo on innovative technology in the BOTH the cases of controversial proposals like LightSquared and M2Z and the more innocuous cases he reviews. I am not sure if the FCC as presently structured has enough technical decisonmaking "bandwidth" to handle the flow of today's spectrum policy issues. When FCC started in 1935 the lack of an Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 made regulatory action much faster than today, the FCC (then 7 commissioners) was structured as 3 parallel subcommittees that could work independently on many issues, and the FCC's multi-industry jurisdiction was much simpler than today. While FCC employees have increased in number, the decisionmaking mechanism at the top has decreased in bandwidth and probably doesn't match today's work flow. FCC's jurisdiction is multifaceted and despite what Wayne said, the "wardrobe failure" was a legitimate issue. In 2008, IEEE-USA made several suggestions to the previous FCC chairman (http://www.ieeeusa.org/policy/policy/2008/060508.pdf) on improving technical policy deliberations. While Chmn. Martin never replied, the FCC's Technological Advisory Council is now back in existence -- although it hasn't had any real impact to date. The other suggestions would also improve decisionmaking and parallel what other federal regulatory agencies with technical jurisdiction do routinely. They have never been acted on. However, I respectfully disagree with Wayne on "The approval of the LightSquared data service was clearly an effort by the FCC to make the White House happy. Nobody bothered to look at the potential consequences." Terrestrial use of the lower adjacent band to GPS is NOT a new topic despite what PR firms are trying to whip up. Such use, called ATC in FCC jargon, was first authorized in 2003 and LightSquared's predecessors have held an authorization for such use since 2004. The January FCC order may have the GPS industry up in arms, but only relaxes a 2004 requirement that all handsets have Iridium-like satellite transceivers as a precondition for having cellphone-like transceivers in the same unit. The semantic issue of requiring testing before FCC approval or the action taken is not a real issue. Clearly the FCC required testing and resolution of the interference issue as a precondition for actual use so there is the same effect. Note also that NTIA has effective veto power over any interference to federal users in the GPS band under their jurisdiction. The demands of the GPS community that spectrum should continue to lie fallow if its use would have ANY impact on them is an invitation to continue the indefinite use of poor front ends in GPS receivers of all price ranges. This is similar to the basic problems in the PCS H block and AWS-3/M2Z issues. We need to find timely and equitable solutions to this type of issue that respect the legitimate interests of all directly involved as well as the general public -- users of multiple types of services. I agree with Wayne that the FCC as presently structured does not do this well. Reply
Apr 14, 2011 6:04 PM Mike Mike  says:
Its not necessarily poor front ends that are the problem. A receiver may be designed for higher accuracy (as needed in survey and precise machine control), requiring wider bandwidth, and receiver and antenna may be designed to pick up Inmarsat L-Band signals to operate with supplemental systems such as Starfire, Omnistar, VeriPos. There is no such thing as infinite filter roll-off, and the laws of physics say that if you apply enough power in an adjacent band, you will even saturate a well designed system. The FCC made a hasty decision (why this time?). They should have considered the ramifications on the huge GPS user base prior to making the decision. Reply
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